Floridians must stand up for sunshine

Orlando Sentinel

Sunshine Sunday kicks off Sunshine Week in the Sunshine State. That should produce enough glare to require sunglasses as politicians boast about their open meetings, accessible records and public debates. Then why so many dark clouds on the horizon?

The concept of government in the sunshine is straightforward. Every public agency has to open nearly all of its meetings, allow relevant documents to be examined and copied, and let citizens hear the debate that informs important decisions, especially when tax dollars are at stake.

And there is a solid rationale for such laws. Experience teaches that people in power behave better when we keep an eye on them.

Some politicians have already displayed their contempt for such laws.

Gov. Rick Scott and the three-member Florida Cabinet are being sued over the secretive firing of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. His career ended abruptly after he complained about pressure to do political favors for Scott and his allies. That’s a serious charge, yet the Cabinet members, who share oversight of the FDLE, acceded to Bailey’s ouster with little public discussion. It sounds as though the smelly deal was cooked up in back offices or that Cabinet members abdicated their sworn duties, or both.

More threats loom. Legislators have the power to create new exemptions to open government and appear only too eager to do so, especially when one of their own is embarrassed. Such is the case with Senate Bill 182, which would let universities conduct presidential searches in secret.

Florida State University’s controversial effort last year to name a new president is proof that more public insight is needed. Influential state Sen. John Thrasher got the job over three candidates with superior academic credentials. The search never appeared to be competitive. In fact, a consultant called the process a “sham” designed to favor Thrasher, the Associated Press reported.

Only in Tallahassee would the solution to a sham be a bigger sham, yet that describes SB 182. Under it, citizens wouldn’t even have access to the names of applicants for president, provost or dean until late in the process. Thrasher told us in a recent interview that he opposes the bill.

Such an assault on open government should be laughed out of the Legislature; instead, it has a serious chance to become law.

Some restraints on accessibility are more subtle. Citizens often rely on news organizations to inform them of government actions, but the task grows increasingly difficult. A national survey last year found that two out of three reporter requests for interviews with public officials were slowed or diverted by so-called public information officers, according to the Society of Professional Journalists.

Another tactic to deny access to public records is to charge exorbitant fees to pre-screen them, and there is no apparent standard. Duval County charged $1,485 to review 3,400 emails of its school superintendent, a rate of nearly 44 cents per email, AP reported. The rate in Lee County was 22 cents.

In the Information Age any citizen should be able to get relevant public records without hassle. Yet a study by the First Amendment Foundation found that city and county websites were much less useful than they could be. “On most websites, it’s far easier to pay a water bill than it is to find out how much a government is paying to run the water department — and who’s selling services to the department,” said Barbara Petersen, FAF president.

So a lot of glittering rhetoric about open government will be spouted this week, but don’t be fooled. Ultimately it is up to every Florida resident to stand up for government in the sunshine — and the clouds are gathering.