A Times Editorial

Be vigilant on openness

Gov. Charlie Crist deserves high marks for renewing Florida's commitment to government in the sunshine. Just in the past year, his open government office has trained 2,000 state employees on responding to public information requests. And his open government commission has recommended ways to refresh Florida's commitment in the digital age. But assuring sunshine in government requires constant vigilance, particularly during a legislative session.

That is why the news media in Florida and across the country have established Sunshine Week from March 15-21, organized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Florida law requires public notice of any meetings where decisions are made by elected officials, and government records are presumed open to the public unless there is a specific exemption in state law. But even in Florida, where voters enshrined government in the sunshine in the state Constitution in 1992, there are new assaults annually on open government.

Among the bad ideas circulating in the Legislature this year:

• Bar public education institutions from releasing identifying information of current and former employees. The measure offered by Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, SB 1260, and Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, HB 409, would prevent public schools and colleges from providing the names, addresses, phone numbers and employment status of teachers, administrators and school board members. The exemption would make it extremely difficult for parents to investigate their children's public schools. And the proposed law would have hindered a recent series by the St. Petersburg Times about government employees who earn both a paycheck and a state pension — so-called double-dippers. The legislation would have made it impossible to see how many educators were double-dipping.

• Hide the names, addresses and phone numbers of stalking victims in voter registration records. State law already allows stalking victims to have their addresses exempted from all public records. But it is not okay to have anonymous voters on the rolls as SB 2144, sponsored by Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, would allow. You can't protect the integrity of an election process when some of the voters are named John and Jane Doe.

• Prohibit disclosure without a court order — except to a victim's family — of any crime scene photos and videos that include a severe injury or deceased person. The measure, HB 277 and SB 636, sponsored by Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, would make it harder to examine the integrity of police investigations and unearth mistakes or cover-ups.

But for all the possible assaults on open government this session, there is also a chance to improve it. Lawmakers should approve the following:

• "The Florida Budget Openness Act" would give Floridians online access to state and local government expenditures and revenues. It follows one of the key recommendations of the open government commission, which would give citizens electronic access to see how their government spends tax dollars. The proposal, HB 971 and SB 1972, sponsored by Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, and Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, would direct that a Web site be created to track the fiscal details of every government entity in the state including local governments, the courts, the Legislature, school districts, state colleges, etc. Interested in how much a city's parks department is paying in salaries? Call up the Web site. Want to know how much bond debt your county is carrying? It would be there. The Web site would give taxpayers the power to understand just how their money is being spent. It would be a tremendous boon to civic activism and engagement.

• Allow foster parents and people considering adoption access to certain parts of a child's case files. The Department of Children and Families is supporting SB 126, sponsored by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, which would make it easier for the adults caring for a child who has been removed from a home due to abuse or neglect to have access to that child's history. The child would also have access to their own file at no cost. Right now it takes a court order — an expensive and cumbersome process — to open these records.

There are a host of other good ideas available for elected officials to embrace in the report by the open government commission. State lawmakers and local government leaders interested in proving their commitment to the public should take them up, such as a proposal to bar public officials from using electronic communications devices during public meetings.

To his credit, Crist has made open government a priority for his administration. So should Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul. They should persuade lawmakers to reject dangerous new exemptions to public records law and promote those measures that would lead to more citizen access. Each elected official bears the constitutional responsibility to keep Florida in the sunshine.

Be vigilant on openness 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 8:25pm]

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