Celebrating Sunshine Week

By: Paula Dockery

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if elected officials instinctively conducted all of the public’s business openly and made all records of their policymaking, administration and enforcement accessible to the public?

After all, we elect individuals to represent us and to perform their duties in an ethical manner with the best interest of their constituents in mind. But there are many competing interests. There’s temptation for backroom dealing and trading favors. Strong political influences can affect decision-making and personal opportunity can lead to conflicts of interest.

To safeguard against the possibility of impropriety, corruption and personal financial gain, Florida has established some of the strictest government-in-the-sunshine laws. Because we believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant, we designed laws that require official business to be conducted publicly.

In order to hold elected officials accountable, all aspects of lawmaking and enforcement are to be transparent so voters can see and participate in our democratic process. Since most Floridians can’t be in the state capital while these important policy and budget decisions are being made, we rely on the news media to act as our watchdogs and to alert us when something is amiss.

In mid-March each year, the news media and other sunshine advocates celebrate Government in the Sunshine Week to educate voters of our laws and of the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.

Governors have traditionally embraced our sunshine laws and have tried to make public records accessible to our citizens. Unfortunately, Gov. Rick Scott has bucked that trend and has initiated a new era of perpetual clouds.

Scott, who comes from the corporate world of trade secrets and private negotiations, has not embraced the notion of accountability, accessibility and public debate in his public role. Averse to speaking frankly to the press, Scott finds himself embroiled in several sunshine scandals.

His administration has erased requested emails, fought release of private emails in court, circumvented creating records by conducting public business through verbal instructions, and used go-betweens to avoid public discussion in Cabinet meetings.

The Bailey incident was especially egregious. Scott not only lied to us about the circumstances of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey’s ouster, but when his deeds were exposed he claimed the Cabinet officials were aware of it. A coalition of Florida newspapers and TV stations have filed suit, alleging that Scott and his Cabinet broke the law by using staffers to coordinate Bailey’s ouster.

The coalition requested an emergency order to safeguard all relevant materials including text messages of Cabinet aides and other staffers. They cited Scott’s controversial record in maintaining public records, mass deletions of emails by Scott’s transition team and allowing employees to subjectively destroy records they consider “transitory.”

While this is occurring, one of Scott’s agencies — the Florida Department of Corrections — facing a scandal involving inmate deaths and claims of abuse and corruption issued a gag order on its employees.

The latest news hit the national media. An investigative report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting exposed a secret verbal policy by the administration prohibiting the employees of the Department of Environmental Protection from using the terms “global warming,” “climate change” and “sea-level rise.” Scott denies such a policy exists despite confirmation from numerous past and present DEP employees. What else is happening that we don’t know about?

What is the penalty for knowingly and willfully ignoring sunshine law? Why not circumvent it if you can get away with it and achieve your objective when operating in the sunshine will likely lead to defeat? There need to be consequences for making that choice.

How else are the sunshine laws being skirted? One way is by making it difficult or expensive to get information. It’s not just the public or reporters who face the frustration of trying to get public records in a timely manner. As a legislator, I twice had to make formal public records requests from state agencies.

One nightmarish experience involved the Florida Department of Transportation. They employed two aggravating but effective tactics to thwart my efforts. First came the “data dump” where they shipped me 28 boxes of randomly assorted photocopies. It was nearly impossible to dig through the clutter to make sense of it. Then they stalled my specific follow-up request until after a crucial vote when it was no longer meaningful or helpful.

My request of the Department of Corrections was no better. Well-intentioned employees were too scared to provide the information. When requested through their bosses, the information was purposely stalled and not provided when needed during the heat of the prison privatization debate.

How can legislators make informed policy decisions when they can’t access pertinent information in a timely manner?

A week each year dedicated to highlighting the importance of government in the sunshine and educating the public is indeed needed. More important, though, is the need to put some teeth in the law.

Until then, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much to celebrate.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.