They are Tampa Bay's Disciples of Darkness. These 12 Florida House members consistently voted this year to keep more public records secret and allow public officials to discuss the public's business in private. They all received D's in a legislative scorecard on open government produced by the Florida Society of News Editors. Even those low grades are generous, because Florida's government-in-the-sunshine laws would have been gutted if all of the terrible bills they voted for would have become law.
These 12 Tampa Bay legislators, who happen to be all Republicans, aren't alone. The FSNE scorecard handed out three F's (none in Tampa Bay), 77 D's, 71 C's and 9 B's. But these 12 shared the same disappointing voting records. They all voted to allow two members of any school board, county commission or city council to meet in secret to discuss public business without any public notice or record of what was said. That is illegal now, and it would have taken government into the dark back rooms of 50 years ago.
These lawmakers also voted to take searches for university and college presidents out of the sunshine and keep them secret until the very end, which would have made it impossible to evaluate whether the best candidate was selected. And they voted to keep secret all criminal records in any case where no charges are filed, prosecutors drop the case or the defendants are found not guilty in court. That would mean families could not find out if child abuse charges against their babysitter were dropped, or if their accountant was found not guilty of fraud charges.
The House failed to get the required two-thirds vote to allow public officials to meet in secret, but it passed the bill concerning searches for college presidents. The Senate had the good sense not to consider either one of those issues, but you can bet those threats to open government will come back next year. Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the bill dealing with criminal records, but he says that provision will not take effect because it is tied to other legislation that did not pass. Let's hope he's right.
Two other bills these dozen lawmakers voted for became law. One will keep secret the names of murder witnesses, and the other will expand public records exemptions for personal information for a long list of public employees. Keeping the names of murder witnesses out of public records will not make those witnesses safer, and there is no evidence of the need for expanded exemptions for public employees.
These Tampa Bay lawmakers did not receive F's in the FSNE scorecard only because they voted for two bills that favor open government that Scott has signed into law. One requires public reporting of pollution discharges. The other protects court clerks from liability if they release confidential information that was improperly marked. Those are hardly ground-breaking wins for openness, and they pale in comparison to the votes for secrecy.
Florida has a long tradition of government-in-the-sunshine, and the Florida Constitution and state law provide for open government meetings and public records. Those protections are under serious threat, and support for open government by the governor and the Florida Legislature is the lowest it has been in decades. FSNE's new report card, based on information provided by the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation (disclosure: Times managing editor Jennifer Orsi is an FSNE board member and editor of editorials Tim Nickens is a foundation board member), reveals how the votes of each legislator contribute to the dark cloud over open government. Many of these issues will be back next year, and voters should hold their lawmakers accountable.