Monday, January 22, 2018
Opinion

Nickens: Closing off government from sunshine

They talk a good game in Tallahassee about the importance of open government and conducting the public's business in public.

They just don't practice what they preach.

Here's a good snapshot of just how secretive Tallahassee has become.

The former chief of staff for the late Gov. Reubin Askew asked the Florida Supreme Court to force candidates who have blind trusts, such as Gov. Rick Scott, to report the holdings in those trusts in financial disclosure forms filed when candidates qualify for office. Askew persuaded voters in the 1970s to pass the Sunshine Amendment, which requires elected officials and candidates to list their financial assets so voters can judge potential conflicts of interest for themselves. Scott and Republican lawmakers naturally want the lawsuit to be dismissed, and the Supreme Court punted the issue to circuit court.

In Leon Circuit Court in Tallahassee, Senate President Don Gaetz acknowledged he met secretly with House Speaker Will Weatherford to agree on a map for new congressional districts before they assumed those positions. Never mind that voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1990 to require the Senate president and House speaker to meet in public when the purpose of the meeting "is to agree upon formal legislative action that will be taken at a subsequent time." Unfortunately, the amendment allows the Legislature to interpret and enforce the requirement. The result: The House speaker and the Senate president never illegally meet in secret.

Even legislators have a hard time getting public documents.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a lawyer and the son of the Senate president, filed a lawsuit on behalf of a client that accuses the Department of Transportation of failing to release 1,000 emails about guardrails. The DOT apparently is allowing a guardrail vendor to decide whether any of the documents are exempt from the public record. That is not how public record law works. It's the public agency, not a private company, that should decide which records are public and to cite an exemption in state law that justifies keeping any of them secret.

The disdain for public records and conducting the public's business in public starts at the top. All governors over the last 35 years or so have had at least occasional issues with embracing the spirit of government-in-the-sunshine and complying with public records laws. Scott ranks among the worst.

The governor's public schedule reveals little. There is far less detail about his travel on his private plane than his predecessors routinely provided. He fails to properly record the plane expenses on his campaign reports, and he avoids email so he won't create a public record. His effort to make emails of his staff readily available on the Internet was a farce, and new obstacles to requesting emails from current and former staffers are tied up in a lawsuit.

Scott's predecessor and likely November opponent, Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, established the Office of Open Government within the governor's office. Under Crist, the office worked as an advocate for the release of public records. Under Scott, it is better known for obfuscation and stalling.

The hostility to openness percolates through the governor's agencies. The Department of Children and Families initially responded to the Miami Herald's investigation of the deaths of hundreds of children known to DCF by keeping secret more information. Good luck getting public records promptly from the Department of Transportation or the Department of Environmental Regulation.

To be fair, it's not just Scott who prefers darkness to sunshine.

The Legislature approved more public records exemptions this spring than it has in years. They even exceeded the number of exemptions approved in the months following the 9/11 attacks. Among the worst is an exemption for nearly any information about family trust companies held by the Office of Financial Regulation.

The most serious threat to openness isn't even technically a public records exemption. The "stand your ground" legislation allows anyone who claims that defense and prevails to request that all records of the incident be expunged. That would make it impossible to duplicate the Tampa Bay Times investigation that revealed how drug dealers avoided murder charges and gang members went free by taking advantage of the "stand your ground" law.

The First Amendment Foundation has asked the governor to veto the family trust exemption and the "stand your ground" legislation. (Disclosure: I am a member of the foundation's board of trustees.)

Don't hold your breath.This column has been revised to reflect the following clarification: A constitutional amendment requiring the Florida House speaker and Senate president to generally meet in public did not apply to secret meetings on redistricting held by House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz because they did not hold those positions yet when the meetings occurred. A Tim Nickens column published Sunday was unclear on that point.

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