Op-Ed: Open Government Laws Prevent Abuses, Hold Leaders Accountable

Today news organizations in Florida are observing Sunshine Sunday, which starts the annual Sunshine Week campaign to highlight the importance of open government in a democratic society.

Florida’s open government laws are some of the strongest in the nation, and that’s cause for pride.

The state’s Sunshine Law, enacted in 1967, protects your right to know what’s going on in the halls of power, helping citizens hold officials accountable and stop abuses, from Brevard County Commission chambers to Tallahassee and the White House.

Here are just a few recent local examples of how open government works in the public interest:

Eugene Benson, a citizen watchdog in Vero Beach, used Florida’s open record rules to expose five years of errors in Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ financial disclosure forms.

Mims resident Emmet Waters, worried about water quality at his home, requested lab data from the county in November.

Melbourne Beach activist Steve Walters frequently requests public records when he suspects something’s awry in town government.

But open government loses ground when politicians try to shield themselves or special interests from needed scrutiny.

That’s also happening in Brevard, where Clerk of Courts Mitch Needelman this month trampled on his employees’ free speech rights by enacting a policy forbidding they talk to the media.

The gag rule may be technically legal, but it does nothing to improve public trust and heightens concern about management of the clerk’s office. Needelman should rescind the policy and espouse the spirit of open government.

Sadly, he may have been just taking a page from Gov. Rick Scott’s play book.

Since he took office in January, Scott has set a troubling tone for open government.

Several of his actions violated the spirit, if not the letter, of Sunshine Law, starting with tightly controlling press coverage by blocking some reporters from events.

He’s also skirted open meeting requirements at governor’s mansion dinners with top Senate Republicans where state business is discussed.

And Scott, like Needelman, is overreaching to stem the flow of information, restricting agency directors from giving public addresses without permission and routing all questions to agency press directors through the governor’s office.

Public record requests to Scott’s office have met with long delays, and this month he began charging fees for copies. That’s allowed, but it’s an about-face from friendlier open government policies put in place by former Gov. Charlie Crist that will further slow the release of information.

Meanwhile, fees for large requests can be prohibitive, throwing up barriers when to citizens exercising their right to know.

Scott comes from the behind-closed-doors world of corporate boardrooms, but is now a public servant and like Crist should champion, not thwart, open government laws.

Other attacks come each year in bills Florida lawmakers file for Sunshine Law exemptions.

Bills that should be rejected this year include HB 411, which blocks release of photos or videos of killings, erasing critical oversight of law enforcement.

For example, a video showing the 2006 beating of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, who died after being abused by deputies at a Bay County youth detention camp, would be exempt from disclosure.

Another bill creates exemptions for the names of children and spouses of former law enforcement officials and some agency employees.

Names of minor children should be shielded, but a blanket ban would make it impossible to know if a top agency official hired an unqualified son or daughter to run a program or gave a spouse a no-bid contract for state work. Neither should be approved.

Lawmakers should also reject other dubious exemption requests the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation rates as harmful to transparency.

Sunshine Law belongs to every Floridian, a sacred trust that keeps government at every level operating in the light of day.

The public should demand that light be brightened, not dimmed.