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No. 4: Yes to open government

The proposed Amendment No. 4 on the Nov. 6 ballot is a chance for voters to make state legislators more accountable for their actions. Essentially, it would change the Florida Constitution to put the Legislature under a lesser version of the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, which has forced city and county governments to meet in public since 1968. The amendment would require the Legislature to provide public access and public notice for committee meetings, conferences and planned gatherings of more than two legislators, and would require a recorded vote in committees when properly requested. It would also make meetings between the governor, the Senate president and House speaker open to the public when they are discussing legislative action.

We recommend that voters approve the amendment. The sunshine process has done much to promote good local government by opening up more of the decision-making process to the public, and it is needed just as urgently in the Legislature, where it currently doesn't apply.

Legislative sessions and formal committee meetings generally have been open to the press and public, but the doors usually are closed when leaders make deals on major issues. How that tradition can be abused was illustrated when key legislators met in secret at a lobbyist's home in 1987 to agree on a $1-billion tax increase.

Putting the amendment on the ballot was one of the few positive ethics developments at this year's session; the Legislature balked at such things as reforming campaign financing, outlawing gifts that amount to bribes and giving some teeth to the ineffectual Ethics Commission. Recent revelations about some legislators' gift-taking activities have made it even clearer why those reforms are needed. This amendment would help restore at least a small part of the Legislature's damaged credibility.

Senate President Bob Crawford deserves credit for fighting to get the amendment past balky lawmakers, who still managed to water it down first.

Legislators complain that too much sunshine can stifle the necessary give-and-take that proper government requires. But there's far more danger that the measure will be too weak, since it specifies that "Each house shall be the sole judge for the interpretation, implementation, and enforcement of this section."

While Amendment No. 4 isn't perfect, a "yes" vote will help hasten the day when the public's business truly is conducted in public.