Florida has a proud history of strong open-government laws. But they haven't always kept pace with progress. Consider, for example, the city council members who text or e-mail each other during meetings to skirt open communication. That's not in the public interest.
Now a 178-page report produced by a special governor's commission provides the road map for Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature to bring Florida's strong reputation for Sunshine into the 21st century.
Open government is at the core of a representative democracy. Florida's Sunshine laws are the means to ensuring it happens. They require public notice of any meetings where decisions are made by elected officials, and they presume government records are open to the public unless there is a specific exemption in state law. But those standards need retooling in the digital age, as Crist recognized in 2007 when he appointed a nine-member commission to study the issue.
The result came last week, when the Commission on Open Government Reform, after holding four public hearings across the state, unanimously approved its final report for the governor. Among its recommendations:
• Make all government contracts above a certain dollar amount accessible through the Internet, giving Floridians the tools needed to be public watchdogs.
• Tackle technological hurdles that keep government computer systems from easily sharing information with the public. And create systems to provide easier public access to public record e-mail.
• Address the growing problem of government officials and workers using their personal computers and Internet accounts to conduct official business by establishing clear requirements for the disclosure and retention of these public records.
• Ban government officials from using electronic communications during public meetings.
• Prohibit state agencies from charging a special fee for redacting the contents of a public record that is exempt from public view (such as the Social Security numbers of employees or a law enforcement officer's home address).
The commission was composed of a cross-section of public officials and open government advocates, including the past president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, Jeanne Grinstead, a St. Petersburg Times editor. The group developed a well-considered series of recommendations. Crist, who broke new ground by creating an open government office upon his inauguration, now has a new task. He should adopt those ideas that are within his province and push the Florida Legislature to enact the others during the upcoming legislative session. The most powerful antidote to distrust of government is openness — or here in Florida, a fresh batch of Sunshine.