Guest: Open government is at risk

By MICHAEL BARFIELD

Published: Friday, March 16, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 7:14 p.m.

James Madison, the founding father of our open-government laws, once emphasized the importance of citizens having the ability to be informed: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.” Florida leads the nation in providing the tools necessary for every citizen to gain knowledge about what his or her government is up to. Knowledge is power and the Florida Public Records Act and Government-in-the-Sunshine Law ensure that any citizen can discover the inner workings of state and local government.

This week is Sunshine Week around the nation in honor of Madison’s birthday (March 16, 1751).

The Sunshine Law and Public Records Act in Florida are essential to our democracy because they provide the ability for all citizens to perform a check at the ballot box.

However, there are two important ingredients that must not be diminished if we are to continue to secure the constitutional right of open government.

First, unless citizens use these tools, they remain ignorant of what is really going on and powerless to render an informed judgment at the ballot box. A politician’s greatest fear is the application of open-government laws. Those laws do not require citizens to identify themselves or state a reason why they want to inspect public records. Additionally, the only delay allowed is the time it takes a custodian to retrieve a record and make it available for inspection.

Second, the judiciary must continue to vigorously enforce these laws and not allow public officials to erode access to information through the labyrinth that electronic records sometimes create. Charging excessive fees to access records is also a common method by which record custodians deprive citizens of access, as well as the assertion of invalid exemptions.

One of the biggest threats facing the ability of citizens to remain informed is recent legislative efforts to constrain an independent judiciary. Citizens must ensure that the three branches of government are kept separate to prevent excessive accumulation of power in any one branch.

An independent judiciary is vital to protecting the ability of citizens to gain knowledge through open-government laws. Without it, we are at the mercy of whatever the legislative and executive branches want us to know.

Be curious about what your government is up to. It is rewarding and leads to the knowledge that Madison related to having power. The exercise of constitutional rights is no different than any other form of exercise: Without use, rights atrophy, just like muscles. Exercising rights under open- government laws will also give Floridians the satisfaction that decisions made at the ballot box are conscientious ones.

When elected officials know that citizens are routinely using open-government laws, they become more transparent and sensitive to the fact that all power lies with the citizenry.

In the end, the process is symbiotic and contributes to a healthy democracy.

Michael Barfield chairs the Legal Panel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Sarasota-Manatee-DeSoto Chapter.

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