Florida has a proud tradition of open government that dates to its first open government bill in 1909.
The purpose of open government is to enshrine the right of the people of Florida to take part in their government from start to finish.
So when public officials offer to give the people a right to comment after most of their work is done, that flies in the face of the spirit of open government.
The people have the right to be heard at the early stages of government policymaking, not as an afterthought.
But government in the sunshine must always be defended by well-meaning or cynical attempts to weaken it. Those attempts come in several forms.
One way is a death of a thousand cuts, such as the 1,119 exemptions of open government laws at recent count. Many of the exemptions are justified, such as protecting Social Security numbers of individuals, but some are overly broad.
Sometimes legislators are quick to approve exemptions without giving them the scrutiny they deserve.
Some legislators would be just fine with open government laws that appear to provide access but actually have no teeth.
Barbara Peterson, head of the First Amendment Foundation, told the Palm Beach Post that a legislative committee once spent 45 minutes debating whether cheerleaders are athletes and then passed nine exemptions to open government in just one minute.
No appeals process
Another issue is the lack of an effective appeals process in Florida law. If a public agency refuses a lawful request to provide public records, the only realistic option is to request voluntary mediation or file a lawsuit.
That can be expensive when a government agency uses tax-funded lawyers against a single citizen.
It’s even difficult for a big business like a newspaper when the costs start moving into high numbers.
In recent years there have been bills filed in the Legislature to make legal fees optional in such cases. Such a law would turn Government in the Sunshine from a right to a privilege, devastating the state’s proud law.
The initial reasoning is justified.
Some law firms have filed public records requests that seem motivated by trapping public agencies in order to collect legal fees.
Preventing abuses is fine, but an overly broad bill jeopardizes legitimate requests for public records.
Reports from Tallahassee indicate that some attempts to modify the bill are being made. Legitimate attempts to obtain public records should not be harmed by a few abuses.
An optional bill filed in last year’s session would allow a court not to award fees if the court determines that the request was made primarily to harass the agency or obtain legal fees.
Some narrowly drafted exemptions like this one ought to be the goal.
In order to shine the light of accountability on legislators, the Florida Society of News Editors will be grading members on their commitment to open government.
About 10 key open government bills will be selected. Legislators will receive points for a floor vote and for sponsoring or co-sponsoring a bill on the list.
Votes against openness will lose points.
Bonus points will be awarded for communicating with the First Amendment Foundation.
This grading system should identify legislators who talk a good game but vote a bad game — an all-too-common reality in this state.
After all, Florida voters have consistently supported open government in votes for constitutional amendments.
Some of the harshest opposition comes from people outside government serving on boards and committees who are not used to this public process.
But history has shown that involving the public on the front end pays off on the back end.
The First Amendment Foundation operates a toll-free hotline available to anyone with a question about Florida’s open government laws.
Just call: (800) 337-3518.
The foundation also publishes the Government in the Sunshine Manual and Pocket Guides each year so everyone can have the most up to date Sunshine Law changes at their fingertips.
In the final analysis, protecting the public’s right to open government requires constant vigilance.