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Paul Tash: We all can keep officials on their toes

Paul Tash is the editor of the St. Petersburg Times and a former chairman of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. This column is adapted from a speech to foundation supporters this week.

TALLAHASSEE — If you work for a Florida newspaper these days, it can feel like you're on an airplane that is facing both a headwind and a downdraft.

The fat times of the 1980s and '90s have given way to a much more competitive media environment, with new players that we could not have imagined a quarter-century ago.

Meanwhile, the Florida economy, which had been roaring on the strength of population growth and new development, sputtered and then stalled. The Census Bureau recently reported that Monroe, Broward and Pinellas counties actually lost population last year. Old-timers in the real estate business say they have never seen troubles like this, and it's hard to know how long they will last.

As a result, the landscape of Florida journalism is shifting. When I left the Tallahassee press corps in 1983 there were two major wire services — remember United Press International? — plus bureaus from the Miami News and the Palm Beach Times. Local TV stations from Tampa and Miami once maintained their own separate Tallahassee bureaus to cover state news. Those organizations are gone.

That same pattern is repeating itself at courthouses and city halls around Florida — and beyond. There are fewer full-time, professional watchdogs on government, and they often are trying to do more things.

That reduction in the ranks of professional journalists makes the cause of open government all the more important. From its origin, the First Amendment Foundation has asserted no special rights of access for reporters beyond the rights of any other citizen. To test how government agencies respond to requests for records, we send people who are unknown to the agency staff at the counter and might be any member of the general public.

And when the foundation gets complaints that government officials are denying access or dragging their heels, it doesn't matter whether the complaint comes from the Palm Beach Post or the president of the PTA, from the Tampa Tribune or a taxpayer in Temple Terrace.

Within the ranks of professional journalists, there exists some snobbery about the capacity of interested amateurs. I once heard a columnist for the Wall Street Journal deride "citizen journalism" by comparing it to "citizen surgery."

But even if you're not a brain surgeon, a good working knowledge of first aid can come in pretty handy. And while no citizen has won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing government corruption — at least so far — some of their demands for government information have produced some impressive results.

In Vero Beach, Mr. Frank Zorc actually made law. When he complained about pollution on some land he was leasing from the city, the city commission went behind closed doors. An appeals court ruled against the city, saying that taxpayers deserve to know how their elected officials are settling lawsuits.

And in Escambia County, Susan Watson, a parent, complained that she wasn't getting public records from the local schools. Following the foundation's advice, Ms. Watson went to the state attorney, and as a result, a member of the local school board spent a week in jail — a first for Florida.

Typically, such appeals from the public to the foundation do not end so dramatically. More times than you can count, the First Amendment Foundation intervenes with public agencies to get citizens whatever access to meetings or documents the law provides.

Fortunately, the political environment in Tallahassee seems more friendly to open-government policies. Gov. Charlie Crist has brought a strong commitment to his administration, at times intervening personally to make information available.

Meanwhile, there are some promising ideas in the Legislature to expand citizen access to government information and decisions. One bill would require local governments to provide time for public comment at their meetings. Another would put state agency contracts and expenses online, where they would be just a computer click away. Digital technology is eroding some of the revenue base for the journalism business, but it also carries the promise of vastly expanding the information available to ordinary citizens.

I remain optimistic, even in our current challenges, about the long-term outlook for Florida. It is still a terrific place to live, and eventually we will come through this economic downturn, as we have every one before.

I remain optimistic about the news business, too. We are in a rough patch now, but talent, energy and dedication will bring most of our organizations to better times again. The St. Pete Times bureau in Tallahassee is down a reporter from last year, but it's also true that the bureau is twice as big as when I worked here as a reporter.

And no matter how many reporters our organizations can field, there's a lot more of government than there ever will be of us. So it makes sense to enlist as many allies as possible in the cause of keeping track. There are nearly 12-million registered voters in Florida, and some of them are ready to step forward as Sunshine (as in Government-in-the-Sunshine) Patriots.

After all, there is — and there will always be — plenty of work to go around.

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Open records

The First Amendment Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Tallahassee. Citizens with questions about access to government meetings and records can contact the foundation at floridafaf.org, or call 1-800-337-3518.

Paul Tash: We all can keep officials on their toes 03/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 12:50pm]

    

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