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The Sunshine governor's open government agenda is being eclipsed

TALLAHASSEE — When he entered "the People's House'' with populist zeal, Gov. Charlie Crist made open government a cornerstone of his administration.

He created the first Office of Open Government, issued the first Open Government Bill of Rights and appointed a commission of experts to recommend ways to make Florida government more transparent.

Now, as legislators embark on the last session of Crist's term, the governor faces the toughest test of his inauguration pledge: Does he reject the growing list of exemptions and expend some political capital to push the recommendations from his Commission on Open Government Reform? Or does he allow the Legislature to use the state's dark budget forecast as its reason for not making improvements to the state's Sunshine Laws?

As they observe the beginning of Sunshine Week — a national effort that started in Florida to push for transparency in government — open-government advocates say that so far this session, the governor has been on the sidelines.

While his office has been working on legislation, he has not made it a priority, even failing to mention it in his final State of the State speech.

"I wish he weighed in a little bit more around here on it," said Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat who has authored a bill that would prohibit legislators from agreeing to budget deals behind closed doors, as recommended by the Crist-appointed commission. "I wish he would do more prodding."

Crist, who is a candidate for the U.S. Senate and is not seeking re-election, appointed the bipartisan commission six months after taking office in 2007. In January 2009, the commission proposed 42 recommendations for strengthening the state's open-records and meetings laws.

As Crist prepares to leave office, the commission's top priority is a bill by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and Rep. Clay Ford, R-Gulf Breeze, that addresses the most frequent problems and most common complaints it heard: making it easier and cheaper for the public to get access to records.

"I am willing and eager to put the full weight of the office behind it," Crist said Wednesday, including vetoing measures that create new exemptions that fail to "error on the side of transparency."

Obstacles abound

But even as the governor was vowing to "do anything and everything I can'' to advocate for stronger open-government laws Wednesday, a House committee was swiftly passing a bill banning public access to all audio recordings of 911 calls in Florida. Crist said he doesn't support the bill, which is quietly being pushed by House Speaker Larry Cretul.

The ease with which the 911 exemption is moving through the House stands in stark contrast to the way the Legislature has handled measures aimed at strengthening open-government laws, said Barbara Petersen, a lawyer and president of the First Amendment Foundation who chaired the governor's open-government commission.

"This is business-as-usual in my experience with the Florida Legislature, and it's disturbing," she said.

The First Amendment Foundation is tracking more than 47 bills this session that retain, expand or create open-government exemptions. Meanwhile, the commission's priority bill, the one sponsored by Dockery and Ford, has had only one committee hearing and has three more committees to go — a sign that leaders don't want it to move quickly. The House companion has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Another major bill, by Gelber and Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, which amends the Constitution to open the legislative budget process and prohibit closed-door deal-making between members of the budget committees, has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Dockery and Ford's bills ''make small but important changes'' to Florida's long-standing public-records laws, Petersen said. They streamline the statutes into a new "Open Government Act," set new standards for how much government agencies can charge people for duplicating records, require government officials to be trained on open-records and meeting laws, and increase the penalties for violators.

State law currently allows government officials to charge an "excessive use'' fee when they spend a significant amount of time duplicating records. But while some agencies consider an hour excessive, others define it as 15 minutes, Petersen said.

The legislation would eliminate the "excessive use'' fee and set a uniform standard: Agencies would be allowed to charge 15 cents per page for documents if it takes them 30 minutes or less to compile the documents; it if takes more than 30 minutes, agencies can charge the hourly rate of the lowest-paid staffer needed to do the work.

But election-year politics could complicate its passage.

Dockery, who served as a member of the open-government commission, is running for governor, and many Republican legislators are openly supporting her primary opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum. And many legislators are working for Crist's opponent in the U.S. Senate race, former House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Dockery has admitted that she feels she has a "target on my back'' with political opponents trying to make sure she doesn't succeed this session. Petersen, who calls Dockery''a tenacious advocate," hopes that won't happen.

"If the legislative leadership does not allow a very good bill to pass simply because they have a political issue with the sponsor, shame on them," she said.

Ford, a former Gulf Breeze city official for 16 years, said he is "a little mystified why anyone would object'' to more open government. "It builds public confidence if people know what you're doing," he said. "If you spring it on them, they think you're making a secret deal — whether you are or not."

Rep. Will Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel who also served on the open government commission, said he is optimistic the legislation will pass this year. But even as a top House leader designated to be House speaker in 2012, he said there are no guarantees.

"We always knew we wouldn't get it done in one year," he said. "We're slowly chipping away at it. My hope is it has a shot to pass."

Locally, nationally

Election-year politics isn't the only obstacle. The Florida League of Cities opposes the measure because the new penalties will be difficult for small cities.

"When a public official runs for office, they are not contemplating this type of situation where they could go to jail for up to a year," said Kenneth Pratt, lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities.

He told the Senate committee that the bill had good intentions, ''but what we find is that in getting at the bad apples . . . it's going to hurt some smaller cities."

Petersen disagreed, noting that the penalties strengthen existing law and are needed to deter widespread abuse.

"We've got a bad apple in almost every agency in Florida," Petersen said. "This is not some random thing."

Meanwhile, Petersen said Crist hasn't yet made passage of the open-government bills "his top-tier agenda," which "is frustrating. But, given what the state is up against, it's understandable."

"If the bill passes, it will have a national impact — because other states look to Florida as a model," she said. But because it could impose some of the most important changes to the vaunted law in decades, it could also "cement the governor's legacy."

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]

The Sunshine governor's open government agenda is being eclipsed 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 6:15pm]
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