Look no further than the rising impact of the spreading coronavirus in Florida and the nation to appreciate the importance of government-in-the-sunshine. This is when citizens need accurate information the most, a time of quickly evolving situations and waves of concern about public health and the disruption of the economy, the workplace and daily routines. The situation underscores the importance of open government, and Sunshine Week that kicks off today is a nationwide attempt to reinforce this essential component to democracy.
The information flowed in fits and starts last week from Washington and Tallahassee. President Donald Trump initially downplayed the impact of the virus and consistently spread inaccurate information, then declared a national emergency Friday. Others in his administration generally tried to be more candid without spreading fear and usually deferred to the health care experts.
There also were some bumps in state government, from the slow announcement of new coronavirus cases at first to the announcement of a sweeping travel advisory that was significantly narrowed a couple of hours later. But to his credit, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been calm and regularly visible, and the state has settled into a pattern of regularly updating the number of cases and tests. Numbers and directives will change in fluid situations, but it’s better if that plays out in the open and residents can follow along rather than fear the government is hiding the truth.
Unfortunately, the Sunshine State too often is busier keeping information from the public than expanding open government. The most widespread threat to public records continues to be law enforcement’s pinched approach to Marsy’s Law, a well-intentioned constitutional amendment voters approved in 2018 to enhance the rights of victims. A portion of the amendment gives victims the right "to prevent the disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim’s family.'' Too many law enforcement agencies, including the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County’s Sheriff’s Department, interpret the amendment too broadly, invoking Marsy’s Law unilaterally on behalf of crime victims and refusing to release routine information.
The absurd result of Marsy’s Law: St. Petersburg Police refused to identify Taylor Swift’s dad as the victim in a break-in at his luxury downtown condo even though he confronted the intruder, the intruder was arrested and Swift could be identified through other public records. Tampa Police refused to identify the pedestrian killed in January in a high-profile accident on Bayshore Boulevard days after George Gage was publicly eulogized by friends and fellow residents. The Legislature has no trouble clarifying constitutional amendments it opposes (see Amendment 4, concerning the automatic restoration of felons rights), but it refuses to clarify this one.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers continue to nibble away at public records laws. Last year, they passed a law that now keeps secret photos or recordings of the killing of a victim of mass violence unless a court order makes them public. That will make it more difficult to hold law enforcement or others accountable in mass shootings. This year, instead of bringing the search process for university presidents more into the open, the the Legislature pushed toward creating even more secrecy.
State and local officials continue to ignore the intent of state law and the Florida Constitution when it comes to open government. With the coronavirus outbreak overshadowing everything else, Sunshine Week is an excellent opportunity to remind all elected officials about the importance of openness and an informed citizenry.
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