Killing the Sunshine Law Before Our Very Eyes

Jan 31, 2016 by

Florida voters have the right to know what actions their elected officials are taking when crafting or implementing laws that affect them. It says so in Section 24 of the state Constitution.

Government officials—local and state—collect revenue and spend it. Lots of it. The state budget is hovering around $79 billion this year. Shouldn’t those who paid into the state coffers be able to see how it’s being collected and spent?

Most of Florida’s 20 million residents don’t closely follow what their elected representatives do, but thanks to principled political leaders who instituted and supported Government in the Sunshine, they can if they want to.

Believing that sunshine is the best disinfectant against secrecy, quid pro quo and backroom deals, official actions of government entities are required to be conducted in the open with records kept for the public to see.

The Florida Sunshine Law is actually a series of laws intended to guarantee that the public has access to the public records of the various levels of government in the state.

The Florida Open Meetings Law—Section 286 of the Florida statutes—governs the extent to which public meetings are open to the public. The Florida Public Records Law—Section 119—governs the inspection and copying of public records. Anybody can make a public records request and government agencies are required to comply.

While some citizens do make requests, the majority of the requests come from the news media, whose job it is to report on the government’s actions in order to educate and inform voters. How can voters make wise decisions on whom to vote for if they don’t know what their elected officials are doing?

It’s called accountability.

The news media follow closely so you don’t have to. In their role as watchdogs, reporters and editors alert the public when there is something controversial, unethical, illegal or just questionable. They rely on these laws to gather information the public has a right and a need to see.

The Sunshine laws were crafted in broad fashion, allowing most everything a government entity or official did to be available for the public to see. It didn’t take long for those affected to find reasons to exempt some records from public view.

Of course, there were instances where legitimate concerns were raised for keeping some sensitive information from being shared. A legitimate reason was to protect someone’s safety. One example is the home addresses of judges. Allowances were made to shield—or redact—that information.

With each adopted exemption, more and more followed, making Swiss cheese out of Florida’s Sunshine Laws. There are currently 1,106 exemptions.
It’s so confusing and complex that it’s difficult for the average citizen to navigate.

Few legislators stand up to defend our Sunshine Laws. That’s why Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008 selected me as the Senate appointee to serve on his Government in the Sunshine Commission. It was not a highly-sought-after post.

Our job was to restore sanity to the hodgepodge of exemptions and contradictions and to adjust the law to changing technology. The Commission took public testimony throughout the state and proposed sweeping recommendations. Of course, it would take legislative action to make the changes and legislative leaders had no appetite to do so.

In 2009 there were 39 bills filed affecting Sunshine Laws—but few were to strengthen it. There have been numerous bills filed for the 2016 Session that create a new open government exemption or extend a current one.

HB 1021, which is moving right along in the House, removes the requirement that judges award attorneys fees to those who successfully challenge a government entity for violating the public records law. Just this week, the Senate passed its own version out of a committee.

There is no penalty for public officials who withhold public records. The only recourse to obtain denied records is through the courts.

Representatives of the news media and the First Amendment Foundation spoke against the bill—warning of its chilling effect—to no avail. It passed unanimously.

The other bills for consideration that create or extend public record exemptions involve the identity of witnesses to a felony; security videos; the State Boxing Commission; the State-Funded Infrastructure Bank; audit reports; emergency notifications; and brain tumor research. Death by a thousand cuts.

And if state Sen. Alan Hays had his way, SB 1364 would create a public records exemption for personal information held by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for recreational fishing and hunting licenses and hunter and boating safety certifications. The sponsors of the bill claim confidentiality is a public necessity.

Really?

The continual erosion of our public records law is gutting Government in the Sunshine and—ironically—it’s all being done in the open.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.



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