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Open government finds allies

Promising. That's how to describe the current landscape for expanding public access to government records. In the Legislature there are highly encouraging proposals to markedly increase the ease with which the public participates in government; in the governor's office there is a natural inclination toward seeing the state's business as the people's business.

Unlike the prior administration, Gov. Charlie Crist clearly appreciates and values Florida's leadership in government openness. He began his term last year by creating a state Office of Open Government, a place where Floridians can receive advice about the state's strong open government laws that benefit everyone, not just the news media. He also established a Commission on Open Government to examine ways to strengthen open government laws. After state officials recently refused to release records detailing which state employees receive both a salary and a pension, Crist personally intervened and directed that the records be released to the St. Petersburg Times.

Florida already enjoys some of the strongest legal protections for open meetings and open records in the nation. The governor, rather than bristling at the attendant scrutiny, has looked for ways to breathe life into these rights and expand their reach.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, an organization that advocates for more openness in government, calls Crist "Governor Sunshine." Petersen says she's astounded at the results of this year's annual public records audit of state agencies. Of the 34 agencies examined, 50 percent received a rating of "very cooperative" and another 26 percent earned a "cooperative" rating. This was "a completely different response from two years ago," Petersen says.

This renewed commitment to openness is something to celebrate, especially today, "Sunshine Sunday," when newspapers turn their attention to raising awareness about government in the sunshine.

Even the Legislature seems to have caught the fever. Unlike most years, when advocates for open government are almost entirely on the defensive, trying to prevent reams of new exemptions to public records, this year some terrific bills have been proposed and seem to have momentum.

For example, one proposal (HB 181) would require government expenditures and contracts to be just a mouse-click away. At agency Web sites, with a central portal provided by the governor's office, every entity of state government would have to routinely list all contracted expenditures over $5,000 and the government contract itself. A number of other states have already adopted this reform, a move that greatly enhances public access to information on how tax money is spent. A Senate version of the bill (SB 392) was sponsored by Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon.

Another good initiative is the "Vox Populi — Voice of the People Act" (HB 991 and SB 2276). It would require that local governments, such as county commissions and school boards, allow the public an opportunity to speak at all public meetings on both agenda and nonagenda items.

One of the biggest complaints of Floridians who seek to have input into the workings of government is that too many local officials go out of their way to constrain public participation by sharply limiting time for public comments or dictating the content of their comments.

Just take the recent example at the Hillsborough County School Board, where the chairwoman, Jennifer Faliero, announced a policy (later retracted) that no public comment could mention anyone's name. We need a state law to stop such tomfoolery. Public meetings should include the views of the public, names and all.

Despite positive trends, not everything on the open government front is rosy. Petersen says it appears there have been more shell bills filed this session than in any other year. Shell bills sit like time bombs waiting for lawmakers to fill them with new exemptions to open government laws. But the positive outweighs the negative this session.

There is even a bill, SB 2008, to write into law Crist's Office of Open Government and extend its mission to allow it to deal with local government issues as well as those arising under state agencies. That would ensure the office would not end with his governorship.

What is increasingly clear is that regardless of the protections for open government written in state law or the state Constitution, it takes the right kind of leadership to bring a culture of sunshine to government. That leadership, which has often been lacking in Tallahassee, shows positive signs of taking root and growing now.

Open government finds allies 03/15/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 15, 2008 6:03am]

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