Police officers and judges face dangerous criminals every day, which is why their home addresses and telephone numbers are kept private under Florida law. But now Sen. Kelli Stargel wants the Florida Legislature to extend that same secrecy to state legislators - even though the Lakeland Republican cannot cite any credible threat to warrant the privilege. This is an assault on open government by lawmakers who live in a bubble and don’t want to be held accountable by the media or the voters.
While Florida has broad open government laws, the state exempts from disclosure the home address, telephone number and other personal information of a host of public employees in sensitive jobs, from police and firefighters to judges and a range of government inspectors. The intention is to protect these employees from being retaliated against by people they interact with in the course of their duties.
Senate Bill 832 would give lawmakers and Florida Cabinet members the same level of secrecy granted to police, judges and others in law enforcement-related fields. Yet while threats against police officers and judges come with the job, as Lawrence Mower of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reports, lawmakers supporting the bill offered no evidence they deserved those same protections for themselves. Regardless, a Senate committee approved the bill last week by a 4-3 vote along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. The Senate bill faces two more committees, while a House version has not been heard.
Stargel tried to justify the bill by citing the shooting attacks on former Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and Louisiana U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise. Giffords was shot in 2011 at a campaign event at a supermarket, and Scalise was shot in 2017 during a baseball game at a public park. This bill would have not protected either lawmaker, and Stargel cites no relevant threat in Florida.
This is another case of secretive over-reach and the Legislature’s disdain for open government. Florida already grants privacy to too many categories of workers; police and judges make sense, but hospital inspectors and code enforcement officers? The bill continues a growing assault on public openness by the Legislature, which has granted a range of records exemptions in recent years that only make it harder to expose public corruption and incompetence. Florida has 1,159 exemptions to open government laws, according to the First Amendment Foundation (the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald are members), and the group is tracking 114 bills that would either create new exemptions or extend current ones in the current legislative session.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, to his credit, has expressed reservations about the bill. “You elect someone, you kind of need to know where they live if they’re going to represent your community,” DeSantis said. This information is essential to ensuring that lawmakers actually live in the districts they were elected to represent. It also is vital to uncovering conflicts of interest involving the wealth and employment of a legislators’ family.
This bill is a bridge too far and another example of the Tallahassee mentality. Being criticized by constituents is hardly the same danger police officers face on the beat, and lumping the two shows how far some legislators are cocooned in the bubble.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news