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The importance of open government in a crisis | Editorial
Citizens need a complete picture to hold officials accountable. Limiting media access makes that difficult.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks during a press conference at a COVID-19 testing center near a Hard Rock Stadium parking lot in Miami Gardens on Monday. DeSantis held the event with mayors from Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks during a press conference at a COVID-19 testing center near a Hard Rock Stadium parking lot in Miami Gardens on Monday. DeSantis held the event with mayors from Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | mocner@miamiherald.com ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Mar. 30, 2020
Updated Mar. 31, 2020

Preserving open government and holding elected officials accountable is essential to democracy, and those values are particularly critical during a crisis. Yet as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, fewer reporters are able to question the president and the Florida governor. Mayors in Tampa Bay are less accessible and screening questions. This crisis is going to consume Florida and the nation for weeks. Public officials at all levels of government have to be accessible so citizens have a clear picture of the incredible challenges ahead, how they can help and how well their government is performing to help them.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis deflected questions Monday about why Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald capital bureau was denied access to his briefing Saturday at the state capitol. "I don’t deal with press conferences,'' the governor said, "I just go up and do my thing...'' He should pay more attention. Excluding a single reporter sends a terrible message and denies readers of two of the state’s largest media operations an opportunity to better understand what their government is doing on their behalf. It also smacks of petty retribution for asking tough questions or publishing unflattering stories.

There is a better way. DeSantis could move his briefings to larger spaces in the state capitol to accommodate social distancing. If New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo can do it, surely the Florida governor can. Or there could be a selected list of reporters who could attend the briefings, like there is in Washington where the number of news organizations attending the president’s briefing has been reduced to accommodate social distancing. A key difference is that the pool of reporters is determined in Washington by the White House Correspondents’ Association. There is no similar organization in Tallahassee, and the government should not be picking and choosing which reporters can question top elected officials at routine briefings.

There are similar challenges at the local level. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, among others, are increasingly relying on social media to speak to residents in formats that do not easily accommodate questioning from reporters. That makes it harder for residents to get a complete picture of what is happening in their cities and to evaluate how well their elected officials are performing. There have to be better ways to safely provide opportunities for public officials to be questioned about their responses to the coronavirus crisis.

This new normal will test Floridians’ commitment to government-in-the-sunshine at all levels. An executive order by the governor waives the requirement that city councils, county commissions and other public agencies have a quorum of members physically present to conduct meetings. So local governments around Tampa Bay and elsewhere are exploring the use of technology to conduct virtual meetings. That’s understandable, but they should remember that public notice requirements for such meetings and the rules regarding the public’s right to be heard have not been waived. Provisions in state law and the Florida Constitution that prevent two members of the same public board, say a school board or city council, from talking about public business in private, or that deal with the right to access public records, remain in effect.

The governor, mayors and county administrators are among those who have extraordinary powers now under emergency declarations to issue orders, waive regulations and sign contracts. It’s more important than ever to ensure the public has a clear picture of what the government is doing on their behalf and appropriate methods to hold them accountable. One step toward meeting those goals is ensuring journalists have reasonable opportunities to question those elected leaders in a safe environment.

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