Editorial: Keep Florida government open, in the sunshine


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.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Letters: District wrong to ban charter schools from showcase
Letters: District wrong to ban charter schools from showcase

The Palm Beach County School District’s war on charter schools took a shameful turn when the school district banned charter schools from their annual “Showcase of Schools.” (District Bans Charter School From Showcase, Wednesday) Being prevented from participating in the event, which highlights a variety of specialized classes available...
Editorial: Throngs, snarls attest to economic disparities around us
Editorial: Throngs, snarls attest to economic disparities around us

Like the way that winds can blow off a roof to expose the contents of a house, a disaster like Hurricane Irma can rip through a community and show us what’s within. We got such a peeled-back view over the last few days as thousands upon thousands of people lined up at three designated parks in Palm Beach County to receive short-term food assistance...
POINT OF VIEW: Protect Florida from illegal hotel operators

All Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association lodging members must register with the state, collect taxes, and protect Florida consumers through adequate insurance — rules that prevent substandard operators from exposing travelers and residents to senseless risk and gaining unfair advantages in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the same does not...
Commentary: Focus on real issue behind NFL protests: racial injustice
Commentary: Focus on real issue behind NFL protests: racial injustice

Editor’s note: A version of this column originally appeared in The Palm Beach Post’s Opinion Zone blog on Sept. 28. UPDATE: In the weeks following the blog post, discussion has increasingly returned to the original reason for the anthem protests — calling attention to racial injustice, and a rash police shootings of unarmed black...
Palm Beach Post editorial cartoon: Oct. 22
Palm Beach Post editorial cartoon: Oct. 22

CARTOON VIEW DAVID HORSEY
More Stories