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Florida's open government laws keep leaders accountable

Several weeks ago, a Chinese businessman finally succeeded in having one of China's largest cities put budget plans online for more than 100 city departments. He had fought for years to compel city governments to publicly disclose their budgets. According to the Associated Press, city residents flooded the Web site to download documents, causing the system to crash. The businessman was quoted as saying that it was the first time in 60 years a city government had publicly released its budget.

Here in Florida, where city budgets have been public record for years, we sometimes take for granted the rights of access that belong to each of us under the Florida Constitution and open government laws. The Sunshine Law and the Public Records Law have been part of Florida's heritage for decades. Together with the Open Government Constitutional Amendment overwhelmingly approved in 1992 by Florida voters, these laws provide a standard for public records and meetings that is unequaled in this country.

Some government officials argue that our public access laws are too cumbersome and make government less effective. I would argue, however, that these laws provide the tools for government to become more effective in serving the people. Through the public records and sunshine laws, the people of Florida can obtain the information needed to advocate for keeping programs that work and reforming or dismantling those that do not. That is how government of, by and for the people should work.

In the early years of our country, the Founding Fathers wrote that an informed citizenry was crucial to the democratic process. This principle remains just as valid today. While technology is transforming the way government agencies create and receive information, the importance of the public's right to know has not changed. As Pete Weitzel, the longtime editor of the Miami Herald, put it in his history of Florida public access laws, "Open government advocates must remain vigilant and aggressive in defense of that basic principle underlying democracy — the people must have access to information about what government is doing, how it is doing it, and why."

While Weitzel was primarily addressing those with a direct stake in advancing the principles of open government, all citizens benefit from strong and effective public records and sunshine laws. Whether crucial budget information is obtained by a newspaper reporter or a local civic leader, the benefit is the same: Access to public records and meetings gives Floridians the tools needed to obtain necessary information to ensure government is held accountable for its actions. Particularly in these challenging economic times, the people must have the right to monitor and evaluate their government's spending and fiscal priorities.

Sunshine Week is an annual reminder of the importance of open government. This year, Sunshine Week is especially significant. In June 2007, I signed an executive order creating the Open Government Reform Commission and called on Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, to chair it.

The commissioners heard hours of testimony from concerned citizens throughout Florida, and ultimately adopted a series of recommendations addressing citizen issues and enhancing our sunshine and public records laws. The proposed changes include measures to require open government training for all newly elected and appointed public officials, ensure additional review of newly created exemptions, and bolster enforcement options for violations of the open government laws.

These reforms are currently under consideration by the Florida Legislature, which has the opportunity to pass this first significant revision to our sunshine laws in decades. I look forward to seeing the commission's recommendations enacted into law. Our state has always led the way in promoting open government. Now we have another opportunity to ensure that these vital principles of government and fiscal accountability are strengthened and preserved for future generations.

Charlie Crist is Florida's 44th governor. He also served as Florida's attorney general and education commissioner.

Florida's open government laws keep leaders accountable 03/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 6:02pm]
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