Saturday, February 17, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Dark efforts to gut the Sunshine Law

Here's what you need to know about Tallahassee. It is the land of the undead.

Merely because a particular piece of dreadful legislation may appear to be more lifeless than Old Yeller doesn't necessarily mean it won't have a bright future in Florida's Zombie Legislature.

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-It's Alive!, happened upon a bright idea. One of the real stumbling blocks in governing the state is this silly, useless, antiquated concept called the Sunshine Law, which requires public officials to conduct their business in the open.

Government meetings must be announced in advance so that the public can attend. Official records must be made available so that the great unwashed can read them. And no two glad-handers serving on the same government panel are allowed to meet in private to discuss official business. It's part of that whole sunshine thingy.

We'll have none of that. Pfffffft! Open government. That is so, so holier-than-thou déclassé.

And so, Donalds, R-For Your Eyes Only, has filed a bill that would lift the restrictions on two members of any city, county or state board or commission from getting together behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny, to discuss the affairs of the day. In fact, the secret meetings wouldn't even have to be publicly noticed to alert the citizenry of the impending hanky-panky. Well, why bother the public with information, openness and access? The ungrateful louts will only show up to grumble anyway.

The Naples Republican defended his effort to turn Florida government into the Skull and Bones society by telling Kristen M. Clark of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau, "If we're going to be honest with ourselves and have a balance between proper governance and transparency, it is incumbent on local officials to be able to talk with each other so they can come up with the best possible solutions."

But Donalds, R-Illuminati, wasn't quite finished dismissing public oversight of government bodies as an irritant. "This is where we have to be adults about this," he said of his bill to transform government into something out of The DaVinci Code. "Not every conversation is ready for public consumption."

Thurston Howell III wasn't this arrogant.

There's a very simple reason why Florida has a Sunshine Law requiring greater public accountability. This state has a long, rich (some might say very rich) tradition of public corruption. It's a wonder the state seal isn't a set of handcuffs.

And Donalds, R-Knights Templar, is either being woefully naive or disingenuous if he truly believes conversations between members of government panels across the state need to be shielded from public view because it will make for better policy. One word: Ca-ching!

Government agencies are paid for by the public. Members of these groups work for the public. Ergo, the public has every right to have access to those officials, to know what is being discussed and what impact it will have on — everybody, now — the public.

The public also has every right to be highly suspect of any effort to shut them out of the process of governance. Or consider this. The reason the Hillsborough County Commission is comprised of seven members is because back in the early 1980s when there were only five members and three of them were indicted on corruption charges, the board lacked a quorum to conduct business. Today if a trio of them were perp walked out of the County Center, at least the commission could still function. It's always good to think ahead.

Not surprisingly, Donalds' "Nothing to See (or Hear) Here" bill to turn state and local public agencies into Freemason chapters, easily passed out of two House panels. And what were they? The Oversight, Transparency and Administrative Subcommittee and the Government Accountability Committee. No, really. Stop laughing.

Since the bill has been fast-tracked by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who claims (wink-wink, nod-nod) to be a champion of greater government transparency, its passage in the House is virtually assured.

A Senate version of Donalds' "Bohemian Grove" bill, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Meeting? What Meeting?, appears to be languishing. So it is possible the measure, which would add to more than 1,000 exemptions to the Sunshine Law, might not make it this year.

But Tallahassee is a strange place, where last-minute Lazarus-like legislation often finds a mystical way of drawing a fresh breath.

And if not this year, there is always next year.

After all, who needs a Sunshine Law in the first place when raising the dead is best done in the dark?

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