Gov. Charlie Crist promised a more open and accessible government when he took office more than three years ago. Now sweeping reforms proposed by a blue-ribbon panel he convened could deliver the most consequential expansion of government transparency since 1992, when Florida voters enshrined government-in-the-sunshine in the state Constitution.
Florida has a chance, once again, to lead the nation in ensuring open government. That's a policy every Tallahassee politician who believes in democracy should find easy to support.
Today marks the start of Sunshine Week, an annual event established by the media in Florida and across the country to highlight the importance open government plays in ensuring a free and democratic society. Without access to government records and meetings, citizens cannot hold accountable public officials from the state capitol to the county courthouse to city hall.
On the books, Florida looks like one of the most open governments in the country. But in practice, accessibility to government at hundreds of state and local agencies can be something less impressive. Cities, counties or other agencies vary widely in how they interpret open records and meetings laws. They are inconsistent in what they charge citizens to access records, sometimes clearly inflating the cost to deter requests. And some governments routinely stall requests or ignore certain aspects of the request, such as having them delivered as an electronic record, in contradiction to the law. Training can be nonexistent for staff and elected officials as to their responsibilities under open government laws. And there's little recourse, short of going to court, for citizens who find their requests ignored or denied.
The Open Government Act would strive to address the inconsistency between the spirit of the state's open government laws and their implementation. It stems from Crist's Commission on Open Government Reform. The Senate sponsor, Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, was a member of the commission and is also a Republican candidate for governor.
The bill (SB 1598) would combine the state's open meetings and open records law to create a single cohesive legal standard — making it far easier for all parties to understand the requirements. It would require training for all elected and appointed government officials on open government requirements; set a standard public records fee schedule; stiffen penalties for government entities that ignore their obligations under public record and open meetings law; and sunset public record exemptions every 10 years after re-enactment unless the Legislature agrees to extend the exemption.
Another important revision would bar government agencies, starting in 2013, from charging record-seekers for redaction to remove exempt or confidential information. When agencies charge for staff time to do redaction — particularly when it is done manually — it can put the cost of public records out of reach for citizens. The delay is aimed at giving local governments time to invest in technology that will enable them to automate redaction of records when needed.
There is also a separate proposal to establish the state Attorney General's Office as a mediator when a citizen's public records request is denied. That would provide citizens a chance for appeal without the expense of a court case. It's a provocative idea that deserves consideration.
Once again, public records are under assault in Tallahassee. There is a move to exempt recordings of 911 calls from public records. Other bills would exempt law enforcement photographs and videos that depict a deceased person or any part of a person's extreme injuries. These are emotional pleas that could result in bad law and less public accountability.
At the very least this session, Crist and every one of Florida's 160 legislators should commit to removing everyday roadblocks that keep average citizens from learning what their government is doing. Open government is what distinguishes democracy from every other form of government. And anything that impedes open government — be it ill-trained bureaucrats or outrageous open records fees — should be swept away.