Editorial: Dark clouds over government in the sunshine

Published March 13 2015
Updated March 13 2015

There are the familiar, such as the annual attempt to keep secret the names of applicants to become university presidents. There are the new, such as the broad public records exemption sought for videos from body cameras worn by police. There are the unnecessary, such as efforts to keep email addresses secret. And there are the downright odd, such as a public records exemption related to academic research.

The Florida Legislature is at it again, preparing to poke more holes in some of the nation's best sunshine laws that are designed to force government to operate in the open. Today kicks off Sunshine Week, an annual event that highlights the importance of public records and open government, and there are storm clouds in Washington and Tallahassee. At the highest levels of government, there is a remarkable lack of respect for transparency and access. If there is a silver lining, it's that the indifference to playing by the rules has caught the public's attention.

The quest for secrecy knows no political boundaries. President Barack Obama's administration has earned its reputation as one of the least transparent in memory. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's exclusive use of a private email account tied to a computer server in her private home is only the latest example, and her feeble defense that her only motive was convenience is unconvincing. The practical result was that her government emails were improperly protected from the eyes of Congress and the public.

In Tallahassee, Gov. Rick Scott circumvented state law and the Florida Constitution by ousting Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. The FDLE commissioner reports to the governor and Cabinet, and Bailey says he was told by the governor's general counsel that the Cabinet members agreed with Scott it was time for him to go. Reaching that concurrence even with messages sent through Cabinet aides would violate the public meetings law.

These high-profile attempts to keep the public's business secret serve notice that all citizens have to remain vigilant about holding government accountable. Particular attention should be paid to the Legislature, which last year carved out more exemptions to public records laws than at any time in at least two decades. That hasn't slowed down some lawmakers this year.

Legislators are still trying to take searches for university presidents underground. They argue that the open process discourages applicants who have jobs and dilutes the quality of the fields, but the University of Florida and others have usually ended up with quality choices. This year's legislation (SB 182, HB 223) would keep secret the names of applicants for university and college presidents, deans and provosts until 30 days before names come up for a final vote. That would likely result in just one name becoming public, leaving Floridians unable to evaluate the validity of the search or the quality of the field of candidates.

Also returning are bills to keep secret the email addresses sent by citizens to county tax collectors (SB 200, HB 179) and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (SB 7040, HB 7041). Email addresses are as common as telephone numbers and street addresses, and there is no reason to exempt them from public records. The concerns about fraud are overstated and can be addressed in other ways.

Even more sweeping are efforts to limit the availability of videos from police body cameras and expand public record exemptions for law enforcement officers. The body cam legislation (SB 248) by Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, broadly exempts videos from interiors of residences, medical emergencies and schools — undermining the purpose of the cameras as tools for evaluating whether officers act properly and protecting them from false charges.

A sweeping expansion of public records exemptions for law enforcement officers and their relatives (SB 1324, HB 1015) by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and his son, Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, covers far too many people and too many records. Those changes would make it too difficult for the media and public to spotlight police corruption, evaluate department hiring practices and assess job performances. Key personal information for law enforcement officers, such as dates of birth and home addresses, already is kept secret.

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