Advertisement
  1. Florida Politics
  2. /
  3. The Buzz

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)
Published Jun. 28

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.
    Scott renews his talking point in the wake of an investigative story.
  2. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) CHARLIE NEIBERGALL  |  AP
    All the candidates are here, hoping to pass the Hawkeye test. So far, Elizabeth Warren is surging.
  3. Tallahassee Mayor and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum talks with reporters before addressing a group of gay and lesbian Democrats in Tallahassee on Aug. 19. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)
    Gillum accused Florida’s Republican governor of “routine” voter suppression.
  4. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talks to reporters in Tampa on Aug. 21. Delays in his filling vacancies on the state's five water management district boards have twice led to those agencies canceling meetings to levy taxes and set budgets, which one expert said was unprecedented. OCTAVIO JONES   |   TIMES  |  Times
    Vacancies lead to canceling two agencies’ budget meetings.
  5. Vice President Mike Pence reacts during an immigration and naturalization ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) ALEX BRANDON  |  AP
    Katie Waldman, a former University of Florida student senator, was accused of helping discard independent student newspapers with a front-page endorsement of a rival party’s candidate. | Analysis
  6. Richard Swearingen, Florida's Commissioner of the Department of Law Enforcement, testifies before state lawmakers on Monday. Florida Channel
    But law enforcement officials are getting behind a “threat assessment system.”
  7. Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, urges the Florida Board of Education to hold schools accountable for teaching the Holocaust and African-American history, as required by lawmakers in 1994. The board was considering a rule on the matter at its Sept. 20, 2019, meeting in Jacksonville. The Florida Channel
    School districts will have to report how they are providing the instruction required in Florida law.
  8. The Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Beach. JOE RAEDLE  |  Getty Images
    It wasn’t immediately clear how much Mar-a-Lago would charge to host the Marine Corps Birthday Ball — or even if it might do so for free.
  9. In this March 24, 2018, file photo, crowds of people participate in the March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control in San Francisco. JOSH EDELSON  |  AP
    ‘Guns are always a volatile topic in the halls of the legislature,’ one Republican said.
  10. Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning says Fortify Florida, the new state-sponsored app that allows students to report potential threats, is "disrupting the education day" because the callers are anonymous, many of the tips are vague and there's no opportunity to get more information from tipsters. "I have an obligation to provide kids with a great education," Browning said. "I cannot do it with this tool, because kids are hiding behind Fortify Florida." JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |
    Vague and anonymous tips often waste law enforcement’s time and disrupt the school day, says Kurt Browning, president of Florida’s superintendents association.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement