Just as national Sunshine Week ended, recognizing the importance of open government to a democracy, Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission begins work with its first meeting scheduled for Monday, March 20.

 

The commission will examine the Florida Constitution and make recommendations to the voters.

In that examination, the commission will understand there is much that is unique to the Florida Constitution — including the provision for the commission itself. No other state has such a body, one that meets every 20 years and makes recommendations for amendments directly to the voters, without requiring approval of the governor or the Legislature and without automatic review by the courts.

The commission will begin adopting its own rules. Of particular interest is whether the commission will operate according to the principles of openness that characterize Florida government.

In addressing this issue, commission members will want to look at the Constitution and consider the Declaration of Rights that guarantees access to public meetings and public records. This provision also is unique to Florida.

The commission will find other guidance elsewhere in the Constitution, statutes and practice in Florida government.

The principles of open government begin when a citizen first decides to run for office: There is a requirement that candidates and officeholders file full disclosure of their financial interests.

The Constitution requires the Legislature to conduct its business in public and, though there is permission to close the Senate when it considers appointment to or removal from public office, that authority fell into disrepute after a Miami Herald reporter refused to leave and was photographed being bodily removed from the Senate.

The executive branch is governed by open government and open meetings statutes and by the administrative procedure act, which allows public access to rule-making. The governor’s power to fill judicial vacancies may not be done in secret or through closed patronage committees, and appointments are made from lists submitted after a review that includes public applications and public interviews.

Florida institutions have blazed the trail for openness. The Florida Legislature was one of the first to provide for televised proceedings. The Florida Supreme Court was the first in the nation to adopt a courtroom access rule for cameras and recording devices.

The commission also may consider the example of the Tax and Budget Reform Commission, which operates under a parallel provision in the Constitution.

Coral Gables attorney Bob Martinez, who served on the Tax and Budget Reform Commission and has been appointed to the 2017-18 Commission by the Chief Justice observes: “The TBRC operated in the Sunshine in 2007-08 and was able to perform its work efficiently and effectively. That’s the Florida way.”

Open government is the Florida way and it is important for the commission to signal from the very beginning that it respects this most important feature of Florida government.

Commission members who have not previously served on public bodies will need to be educated in open government principles to understand that even their rough notes and casual conversations relating to public business are controlled by principles that they must appreciate from the beginning. In adapting to this world of public service, they will benefit from assistance available from the Florida First Amendment Foundation and the Attorney General.

As it begins its work, Floridians should offer the commission members congratulations, thanks for undertaking this work, and best wishes for an open and successful process.

*Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte is the author of The Florida Constitution (Oxford University Press 2017), a former member of the Florida House and a past president of both the American Bar Association and the Florida State University.