Ruth: Lawmakers chip away at access to public records

Published Feb. 5, 2016

There's a reason why Tallahassee is more tucked away and inaccessible to most Floridians than the summit of Mount Everest. If you were a member of this august group of money-grubbing, duplicitous grifters, would you want voters to see how the sausage is made in the capital?

That explains why every legislative session brings with it more efforts by your public servants to make it increasingly difficult for the public to find out how Florida conducts the business of stiffing the unwitting populace who put elected officials into office in the first place. You'd have an easier time unearthing the Coke formula.

There's also a reason why the late Reubin Askew — 37 years after he left office — remains one of Florida's greatest governors. Askew was a rarity in Florida politics — a man who believed public service was a noble calling. He steadfastly advocated for greater accountability and transparency in government.

As a young state legislator in the 1960s he pushed for the creation of Florida's Sunshine Law, requiring all government meetings to be open to the public. As governor in 1976 he led the effort to pass the Sunshine Amendment to the state Constitution, which won 78 percent of the vote.

In a capital crawling with scalawags, brigands, hooligans and hucksters, Askew's crusade to clean up the place was met with about as much enthusiasm as if someone had proposed banning gambling in Las Vegas.

And that probably explains why ever since the Sunshine Law went into effect, Tallahassee's grease-palmed denizens have been busily carving out exemptions and loopholes. If Florida's Sunshine Law was a physical entity, it would look like Bonnie and Clyde's bullet-riddled not so getaway car.

Barbara Petersen, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, says by 1985 Tallahassee had created 250 exemptions to the Sunshine Law. Now there are now 1,106 exemptions, making it more difficult for citizens to access government information. This legislative session, Petersen noted, there are some 74 additional bills filed to drop an even greater veil of secrecy over government and public records.

One of the more egregious and certainly ridiculous measures advancing through Tallahassee's anti-First Amendment star chamber is a law that would remove a requirement that judges shall award legal fees to citizens when state or local government is found by a court to violate Florida's public records laws. If the bill passes, state and local governments could act with impunity to deny citizens access to public records knowing even if they are found guilty it may not cost them much.

The assault on the Sunshine Law appears predicated on what its proponents call the "economic terrorism" of a small group of people who they claim have filed repeated lawsuits against various government agencies over frivolous and misleading public records requests.

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It is an interesting commentary on how little regard Tallahassee has for people merely petitioning their government for information they are already entitled to as "economic terrorists." Indeed, Petersen says she could only find four law firms and perhaps five individuals who might be considered to be engaged in gaming the Sunshine Law to improperly collect legal fees. And she added, the courts are hardly shy in dismissing legal action deemed to be frivolous.

So the Florida Legislature wants to disenfranchise nearly 20 million residents and the state's news media from accessing public records they have every right to see, merely because a minute fraction of legal gadflies might — might — have abused the process? What should we call this? Tallahassee terrorism?

Memo to the Legislature: This is Florida, not Egypt.

There would be no need for contested public records requests to wind up in court if we had fewer Sunshine Law exemptions instead of more.

The issue here is simple. Little wonder the Florida Legislature doesn't grasp it.

We have — or should have — one of the nation's most liberal public records/open government laws because, as Askew knew all too well, government cannot be trusted to do the right thing unless it is open and transparent. He was right then. He's more than right now. It is absurd that in the 21st century the public simply can't freely access a vast majority of public government records online without the effort morphing into a courtroom hissy fit.

These are not the government's records. They're yours.

Who knows if Askew is spinning in his grave as the Florida Legislature methodically dismantles his legacy. But he is probably weeping.