There are somewhere close to 1,120 exemptions to Florida’s Open Records laws, according to the First Amendment Foundation (FAF). And each year, the Florida Legislature seeks to add more.
On March 6, the day before the formal opening of this year’s legislative session, the Senate Community Affairs Committee approved CS/SB 80, giving judges some discretion over whether to award attorney fees in public records lawsuits.
The idea is to shut down what the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, calls a “cottage industry” of folks abusing current law by bombarding local governments with records requests as a strategy to file lawsuits and receive attorney fees or settlements.
Nice try. But thanks to the FAF, the Tallahassee watchdog on Sunshine Law issues, the bill got some much-needed tweaking before Tuesday’s hearing before Steube’s Senate Judiciary Committee.
We agree that there are problems with predatory or excessive public records requests. We understand the urge to put a stop to them. But there can’t be financial barriers to citizens pursuing legitimate public records cases. And many would be reluctant to file lawsuits if they are not assured of recouping legal fees when they win.
How is this better for taxpaying citizens who want more accountability from their local governments and officials?
That question is especially important this week. This is Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to raise awareness of the importance of transparency in government, which originated with the FAF and the Florida Society of News Editors.
Florida’s landmark open-government law is one of the nation’s most extensive. But, as mentioned above, the state Legislature has weakened it with hundreds of exemptions. The attorney fee bill is only one of several measures this year threatening to make government more closed.
There is House Bill 351, sponsored by state Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, that would keep secret information about applicants vying to become presidents, provosts or deans at Florida universities or state colleges unless they become finalists for the job. The bill’s supporters allege that the pool of applicants for these high-paying jobs isn’t the best due to Florida’s open government laws, and thus the state isn’t attracting top candidates.
Really? That would be news to Ava Parker, newly installed president of Palm Beach State College; and John Kelly, president of Florida Atlantic University, both of whom were chosen in the sunshine.
And there is House Bill 843, sponsored by state Rep. Byron Reynolds, R-Naples that would create an exemption allowing members of state and local boards and commissions to hold one-on-one meetings in private. “Exempting such one-on-one meetings from public meetings and records requirements will allow such members to better serve the interests of the public which they have been elected or appointed to represent,” the bill says. “Therefore, the Legislature finds that this exemption from public meetings and public records requirements is a public necessity.”
No, it’s not. Freedom of information laws that force public officials to operate in the sunshine are an important way of keeping officials accountable to the people.
For media, this is how we investigate and ferret out corruption and misuse of our tax dollars by city and county officials. It’s how we take editorial stances that not only support but question and advocate for the betterment of our communities. It’s how we make sure the public knows enough to make informed decisions about who should lead us, which policies are broken, and which need to be improved.
All citizens have a stake in keeping Florida government records and meetings open. Because if Florida’s Sunshine laws aren’t constantly defended by the public, government will all too quickly retreat to the shadows.
Florida’s landmark open-government law is one of the nation’s most extensive.