1. Opinion

Editorial: A rare victory for open government

Just enough House members stood for open government Tuesday to kill a serious effort to gut Florida’s “Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.’’
Just enough House members stood for open government Tuesday to kill a serious effort to gut Florida’s “Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.’’
Published May 2, 2017

Here is a ray of sunshine as another grim session of the Florida Legislature winds down. Just enough House members stood for open government Tuesday to kill a serious effort to gut Florida's "Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.'' That is a rare win for transparency and accountability in Tallahassee, and voters should check the scorecard.

This direct attack on the open meetings law, HB 843, would have allowed two members of the same county commission, school board or other government panel to meet in secret and discuss the public's business. For decades, state law has required all government boards to meet in public, and the Florida Supreme Court defined meetings as two or more members of the same panel. Seems clear enough, and voters enshrined protection for open meetings in the Florida Constitution.

Yet House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, allowed this frontal assault on open meetings by a freshman legislator to come to the House floor in the last week of the legislative session. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, made these ridiculous arguments for allowing two city council members or county commissioners to meet in secret with no public notice and no record of what was said:

• "We all know it already happens.'' We don't know that, and if it does happen it is illegal.

• "Do you believe in maximum transparency or in maximum efficiency?'' Maximum efficiency presumably would mean no public meetings at all.

• "Not every conversation is ready for public consumption.'' So the public must be better off not knowing what their elected officials are doing on their behalf.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, provided a textbook example for open government. He described his experience as a member of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, where public discussion about a transit referendum helped educate and prepare both supporters and opponents of the proposal.

The House voted 68-48 to eviscerate the public meetings law. Fortunately, voters amended the Florida Constitution in 2002 to require such exemptions to be approved by a two-thirds vote, so this attack was defeated. You can bet it will be back next year, and voters should be prepared.

Tampa Bay House members who sided with open government and voted against the bill: Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg; Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa; Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg; Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island; Jake Raburn, R-Lithia; Sean Shaw, D-Tampa. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, voted against it after roll call.

Tampa Bay House members who sided with secrecy and voted for the bill: Larry Ahern, R-Seminole; Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills; Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes; Jamie Grant, R-Tampa; Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill; Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater; Amber Mariano, R-Hudson; Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto; Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City; Ross Spano, R-Dover; Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater; Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa.

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