Friday, October 19, 2018
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Half of Tampa Bay lawmakers earn D grades on open government but some stand out with high marks

In a new ranking of their voting records on open-government issues, the Florida Society of News Editors has bad news for state lawmakers.

Most of them don’t score very well.

The group, made up of three dozen Florida news organizations including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, published a scorecard this weekend based on a review of how all 160 members of the Florida Legislature voted during the spring session.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Half of Florida lawmakers fail or nearly fail review of support for public records.

In Tampa Bay, the FSNE analysis found, half of the 26 officials were deserving of a D grade, nine earned a C and four earned a B. There were no Fs among local officials and no A’s statewide.

The scorecard is based on how lawmakers voted on a list of priorities provided by the First Amendment Foundation, which is supported largely by newspapers and broadcast stations. A vote in line with the foundation earned points, while a vote against the foundation lost points. And sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation put more points on the line.

 

Some of the highest- and lowest-rated lawmakers represent parts of Tampa Bay, including Republican senators who received two of the top four spots: Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Bill Galvano of Bradenton, who also represents part of Hillsborough County.

"Our goal is that there be a completely transparent and open government," Brandes said.

He, along with Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, sponsored legislation that protects court clerks from being sued if they release confidential information due to an error committed by a lawyer involved in a case. Current law isn’t clear on the issue.

"The clerks serve as basically the front door to our justice system," said Diamond, who received a B-.

But he noted other issues may have more significance, including a failed proposal that would have allowed two members of a local government body to meet in private, reversing years of law banning such secret conversations and which Diamond called an "existential threat" to open government in Florida.

Others felt differently, including Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who supported the measure and earned a D+ score on the Sunshine Scorecard.

"In the Legislature, we can meet with another legislator one-on-one, so I thought that the state government shouldn’t be treated any differently than the local government," he said.

While the clerk of courts issue helped propel Brandes and Diamond to high marks in the First Amendment Foundation analysis, 13 Tampa Bay area lawmakers scored below a C.

"This ‘scorecard’ was created by a special interest group that thinks legislators should cater to the group's own political agenda rather than do what is in the best interest of the people of Florida," said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who scored a D+.

He — and many other lawmakers — raised questions about one of the specific pieces of legislation included in the analysis: A measure that beginning July 1 will shield the names and other identifying information of witnesses to a murder.

"We have to keep people who come forward and testify on things like that safe, and publishing their names or contact information discourages people from getting involved in reporting crimes," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who received a D+ rating from the First Amendment Foundation.

Many others echoed his sentiment, including Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who called the inclusion of that issue in the scorecard "just plain silly."

The analysis gave points to lawmakers who voted against that bill, which the First Amendment Foundation opposed during session on the grounds that it would make it harder for members of the public to access important information about one of government’s central tasks: criminal justice.

But supporters of the measure, signed into law in May by Gov. Rick Scott, say it is essential to ensure that witnesses of murders feel comfortable coming forward to law enforcement and prosecutors with what they know.

"If I have to vote on that bill 100 more times, I will vote 100 more times for that bill," Sen. Latvala said.

Here is how lawmakers who represent parts of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties fared in the analysis:

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg: B

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton: B

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater: D+

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa: C+

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg: B-

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby: C-

Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa: C-

Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole: D-

Rep. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills: D+

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes: D+

Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa: C-

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg: B-

Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa: D+

Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa: C-

Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill: D-

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater: D+

Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson: D+

Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto: D+

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg: C-

Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena: C-

Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia: C-

Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City: D+

Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa: C-

Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover: D-

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor: D+

Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa: D+

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