For safety, accountability, keep government open

By: Darryl Owens, The Orlando Sentinel 

Why do Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine laws matter so much?

Because when nobody watches government closely, bad things happen.

Because democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and it’s impossible to know everything that’s going on without access to government records and meetings.

Because how else would we know about the dangers of speeding cops in South Florida, or the growing menace of synthetic drugs in Central Florida, or the many sexual predators across the state who attack again after their release?

People know about these and many other threats because of government records obtained by the Orlando Sentinel — and our sister paper, the Sun Sentinel — in the past year. Before our reporters combed the records and connected the dots, few grasped the magnitude of the problems.

Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, a chance to highlight the importance of laws that allow us to keep an eye on how government spends our money, regulates our daily lives, and protects our communities.

For the record, it’s not just the media that utilize access laws. Private businesses make more requests than anybody. Perhaps you, too, have sought information from some government body. As you probably learned, it’s not always easy, or inexpensive.

It’s impossible to commemorate Sunshine Week without first acknowledging that Florida lost a leader in the campaign for open government Thursday with the passing of former Gov. Reubin Askew. He led the successful campaign in 1976 to pass the “Sunshine Amendment” that requires public officials to disclose their finances.

And it’s no coincidence that Sunshine Week tracks the opening of the Florida Legislature, where every year good-government advocates have to contend with dozens of attempts to chip away at citizens’ rights to records and meetings.

But this year, rather than highlight the attacks that need to be repelled, we’ll spotlight the bills that should pass.

At the top of the list is Senate Bill 1648, which would let you request records verbally or force an agency to cite a statute that requires you to put a request in writing. This legislation also would help rein in the hyperinflated costs some governments now charge for copies of records.

Then there’s SB 718, which complements a law passed last year that requires government bodies to give citizens a reasonable right to be heard on issues to be voted upon. This year’s bill would require those bodies to give citizens a head’s up by placing on the agenda any item expected to draw a vote or other action.

And HB 1153, which would shine a light on Direct-Support Organizations that raise cash for government entities but operate under a cloak of secrecy.

Sunshine laws are a cornerstone of democracy. But they take maintenance and an ever-watchful public eye.

Open government works for you. Help us be its champion.