Open government watchdog Barbara Petersen announces retirement from First Amendment Foundation

But she said she won’t quit advocating for the public’s right to oversee government actions.
First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen is shown in her office, Wednesday, March 4, 2009, in Tallahassee, Fla.(AP Photo/Phil Coale)
First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen is shown in her office, Wednesday, March 4, 2009, in Tallahassee, Fla.(AP Photo/Phil Coale)
Published June 28, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — One of Florida’s foremost champions of transparency in government announced Friday that she is leaving her post as president of the First Amendment Foundation, saying it’s time to pass the torch.

“I decided some time ago that it was time for a change, and it seems appropriate to do it at my 25th anniversary with the foundation,” Barbara Petersen, 67 said.

She added that she’s considering going into consulting work to better train government employees on Florida’s public records and open meetings laws.

“I don’t have the temperament for retirement," Petersen said.

The First Amendment Foundation is a Tallahassee-based nonprofit that advocates for open government and lobbies the state Legislature to increase citizens’ access to government meetings and records. Both the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald are members of the organization.

Petersen has been the foundation’s president since 1995, and said she begins every day with reading the news from across the state. As part of her job, Petersen took hotline calls from members of the public, reporters and even government employees asking about Florida’s open government laws. She personally advised legislators to vote against bills that would restrict public access.

One lawmaker she worked with regularly is state Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, who called Petersen “legendary.”

“A lot of people offer opinions on a lot of different things,” he said. “Not everyone does so from the knowledge and ethical base that Barbara Peterson offered. She’s truly, in my opinion, irreplaceable.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, also said he’s deeply valued Petersen’s takes on different bills over the years.

“If Barbara has a problem with bill, I will always take a second or third look at it,” he said. "I will tell you that Barbara’s influence on the process is such that our public records laws would look radically different if she wasn’t doing what she does every session.”

Despite these efforts, Petersen has witnessed the Legislature pass hundreds of exemptions to the Florida Sunshine Law, considered one of the best open government laws in the country. Each exemption removes another piece of information from public view. After this year’s session, the total count of exemptions reached about 1,130.

She said there’s been a sea change in recent years as politicians have become much more comfortable restricting public access, while refusing to add positive reforms that could reduce the cost and hassle of requesting government documents.

“It’s not good. I suppose it could be far worse, but I’ve been seeing this for quite some time,” she said. “Early on there were a lot of people (in state government) who really did embrace open government and many of those people have left.”

Petersen will officially leave at the end of 2019, and the foundation said in a news release Friday that it will announce her replacement in the fall.

She said she’s hoping the next president will not only have similar knowledge of open government laws but also share her passion for them.

“You have to be willing to help,” Petersen said of whomever will take the job next. “And to be firm.”

Times Tallahassee bureau reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.