Editorial: Reboot law on open records

The state has strong laws that guarantee public access to government records and meetings, but it hasn’t kept up with technological advances.
The state has strong laws that guarantee public access to government records and meetings, but it hasn’t kept up with technological advances.
Published March 8, 2013

Florida is falling behind on open government. The state has strong laws that guarantee public access to government records and meetings, but it hasn't kept up with technological advances. Jeff Atwater, the state's chief financial officer, is commendably leading on the issue. But it's an uphill climb, with too many lawmakers indifferent or hostile to putting the state's $70 billion budget online in searchable form and pursuing other reforms. Today is the start of Sunshine Week, an annual event that highlights the importance of open government. It's a good time for Florida's leaders to renew the state's commitment in tangible ways.

Open government is essential to holding public officials accountable. The opportunities for corruption and mischief are best when government business is conducted out of the sunshine. Florida's Constitution enshrines a right to public records, directing government to conduct its business with public access in mind. Today's online tools should make this easy and inexpensive. But Florida lawmakers have been reluctant to follow the lead of other states and make those tools available, and it's still too easy for lawmakers to reward their friends and special interests without anyone watching.

Atwater is one of the few public officials doing what he can to pull Florida into the digital age. Last year, he launched the Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System, FACTS, a centralized online database for state contracts. The public can search by state agency, peruse contract amounts and audits. Atwater says his next goal is to get every contract imaged and searchable, although he expects a fight from lobbyists and bureaucrats.

This aversion to greater openness helped kill the so-called Transparency 2.0 program. The contract for this controversial software system was not renewed at the end of last year after taxpayers had invested more than $5 million. A whiz-bang budget analysis tool, it allowed users to determine precisely how each agency spends money and to follow the money trail to individual private contractors. The program gave users a clearer picture of where a budget request originated — from the governor, a state agency or a lawmaker, potentially connecting public officials to special interests.

Today, tracking down this information requires separate public records requests, a time-consuming and often costly process. Even then, it's often hard to connect the dots.

Still, the concerns about a no-bid contract and the cost were reasonable and contributed to the decision to shelve the program. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, promises to deliver a system with the same level of budget transparency for far less state money. A bill from the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, SB 1764, is a promising step in that direction. The bill outlines a two-step process. First, on various government websites, it gives the public online access to a broad range of public records, including state budget and fiscal planning information, personnel data and state contracts and procurement documents. Second, the measure establishes a task force to determine how to consolidate all of that information into one searchable web-based portal.

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This is the year lawmakers need to shine a light on their own operations, bring the state's record-keeping technology into the 21st century, and breathe new vigor into the open government guarantees that benefit all Floridians.