It's Sunshine Week, an annual event that highlights the importance of open government in democracy and reminds everyone to be vigilant about protecting our access to open meetings and public records. Yet there are dark clouds in Tallahassee, where the Florida Legislature is considering several proposals that would significantly erode that access. The best prescription for more accountable government is more openness, not less.
Florida has among the strongest laws in the nation regarding open meetings and public records, and citizens have a constitutional right to access. Yet legislators continue to poke holes in those protections by approving exemptions year after year. Among the worst this year:
• SB 1004 by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and HB 843 by Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, would eviscerate requirements for open meetings by allowing two members of a city council, county commission or other board to discuss public business behind closed doors. Now those meetings are required to be noticed and open to the public. The complaint that two members of the same board can never be together is off base, because they are allowed to attend conventions, receptions and other gatherings as long as they do not discuss public business. Open meetings requirements may be inconvenient, but they are essential for the public to hold elected officials accountable for their actions.
• SB 550 by Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, and HB 111 by Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, would keep secret the names of witnesses to murders for two years after the crime. While their aim is to encourage witnesses to come forward, secrecy is not the solution and will offer no protection. This proposal raises serious issues regarding public records, open courtrooms and the public's ability to evaluate the actions of police officers and prosecutors.
• SB 80 by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would change the law from saying the courts "shall" award legal fees when they find government illegally withheld public records to they "may'' award legal fees. That would make citizens far less likely to go to court to enforce their right to public records if they might be responsible for the legal fees even if they win. A compromise reached with open government advocates failed to pass last year, and legislators are even less interested in a sensible solution this year.
There is at least one positive effort to open records rather than close them. Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, is sponsoring legislation, SB 1502, that would ban tourism and economic development agencies that receive public money from withholding financial information and the cost of contracts they sign by claiming those are trade secrets. It's also important to remember that access to public records means access for everyone, not just the media. Citizens and private corporations routinely seek public records. House Speaker Richard Corcoran successfully used the public records law to ferret out Visit Florida's $1 million contract with the rapper Pitbull.
Celebrate Sunshine Week — and tell your legislators you do not want your constitutional rights to access weakened.