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Government secrecy in Florida is out of hand

We have a simple and important principle in Florida:

What the government does is the public's business.

Put another way, the taxpayers of Florida have the right to know what their government is doing.

In our state Constitution, we require our government to operate in the "sunshine," to hold meetings and make decisions in public.

In our state law, we declare that the records of the government are open to public inspection.

That's how it is supposed to work.

Of course, it does not always work that way.

Some people in the government hate the public records law, and drag their feet and try not to obey it.

Every year, our state Legislature writes more and more loopholes into the law.

Our state's new governor, Rick Scott, has shown a contempt for the spirit of the law. Clearly he does not think that what he does is the public's business at all. His underlings fight and stall even the most routine requests for what he is up to, and they have started billing people for asking.

One of Scott's top advisers admitted in a recent e-mail sent from her private e-mail account: "I rarely check and almost never respond to work e-mail because of the open records law."

A Scott spokesman, equally blunt, defended secrecy by saying: "There are things we don't want to broadcast to our opponents."

Their opponents! Who, exactly? The taxpayers?

Here is one of the truest things I know:

Secrecy is a sure sign of bad or dishonest state and local government.

Look, I'll give the feds some of their spy and national-security stuff. But I will not give the governor or the mayor a nickel's worth.

This is true even when — no, especially when — the secrecy is about "economic development" or "trade secrets," the most common excuse. It mostly means that the government is in cahoots with somebody.

We need to do some things differently in Florida. I would start with the newspapers — the folks who are supposed to be finding out what the government is up to and telling people about it.

If I am the editor of the newspaper (Howard Herald? Troxler Tribune?), then every time some so-and-so in Tallahassee refuses the public's right to know, it's a banner headline.

Every day that he keeps refusing, it keeps coming.

The more ridiculous the refusal, the bigger the headline. If Scott runs a secret government, then Scott gets it in 72-point type, day after day, week after week, month after month. I'll give him a whole page every day: "What Rick Scott Does Not Want Us To Know."

Same with the mayor, the School Board, the City Council, the County Commission.

We have gotten too wimpy about this public records law. We are accepting it as an excuse for what the government can keep secret. The law ought to be a floor and not a ceiling. Morally speaking, everything the government does is the public's business. I do not care what the law says.

As a young reporter, I had a real SOB as an editor — a profane, terrifying ex-Marine. I loved the man. And I tell you what, I wish you could have heard his speech about the public's right to know what the government is up to.

Heaven help that young reporter who came back to him saying, weakly, "They told me it wasn't a public record."

I can still see him standing up and swelling to twice the size. "_______________!!!" he would swear. "Go back and make them GIVE IT TO YOU ANYWAY!"

So to my friends in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Miami and Orlando, Palm Beach and Sarasota and Tallahassee and everywhere else:

_____________! Make them give it to you anyway.

Government secrecy in Florida is out of hand 05/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 7:46pm]
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