May Executive Report

FSNE Note

A series of regular updates that appear in upcoming Bulletins about Florida Society of Newspaper Editor activities.

May 28 , 2008

OPEN GOVERNMENT COMMISSION PRIORITIES

The Governor’s Commission on Open Government Reform concluded public hearings in May and is moving to draft proposed laws for the next two legislative sessions.

Barbara Petersen, commission chairwoman, outlined consensus priorities at the conclusion of  hearings in Ft. Lauderdale.

Atop the commission’s agenda is legislation to codify the Office for Open Government, perhaps as a cabinet agency, and give it expanded authority over local as well as state government. Codification would assure the office’s existence in administrations to come. One option discussed would be to move Sunshine Law mediation power from the Attorney General’s office to the Office for Open Government.

A second priority is addressing the problem of excessive charges for public records, including costly redaction fees. Petersen said the commission will recommend doing away with the “extensive use provision” in current law and moving to “actual cost of duplication.” The 15-cents-a-page copy fee would be retained. Petersen said legislative language is needed to clarify charges for “specialized electronic products or services,” addressing the problem of data base search charges and allowing negotiated fees.

Petersen said the commission will recommend stiffening the review process for any new legislative exemptions to the Sunshine laws. One possibility is required legislative review five years after enactment and then every eight-ten years.

To enhance transparency of government contracting, the commission agreed to propose that any contract over $5,000 be available for inspection online.

Petersen  said the commission couldn’t possibly get everything done in one session and that she would like to tackle the more difficult issues in 2009 and carry over to 2010 the issue of consistency of exemptions.

Testimony by FSNE members at  the May 20-21 hearings bolstered the case for reform. Lucy Morgan of the St. Petersburg Times described the difficulties she encountered in obtaining information on “double dipping” by state employees. Robyn Tomlin of the Ocala Star-Banner detailed how her local public hospital evaded Sunshine requirements. Mike Sallah and Rob Barry of the Miami Herald recounted how a local hospital erected sky-high cost barriers to the paper’s examination of contracting practices. Joe Adams of the Florida Times-Union told the commission about abuses of open meeting requirements in Jacksonville and the lack of help from the state attorney in that jurisdiction.

Commission member Sandy D’Alemberte commented that “state attorneys are the least accountable in the Florida system” of government. “State attorneys are simply not effective” on Sunshine issues, he said.

Another commission member, Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, agreed. “Hard crimes are the state attorneys top priority and therefore Sunshine violations are way down in priority,” she said.

The commission’s next two meetings will be in Tallahassee Aug. 26-27 and October 21-22.  FSNE President Jeanne Grinstead is a member of the commission.

Gil Thelen
Executive Director
FSNE

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