Editorial: Government transparency critical to public understanding and official accountability on Treasure Coast

Editorial: Government transparency critical to public understanding and official accountability on Treasure Coast

A key to an effective democracy is public understanding and involvement in the actions taken by elected and appointed government officials as representatives of the citizenry.

That demands that records and meetings associated with governmental actions be open and accessible to all members of the public.

But, too often, those in positions of power prefer to do things behind closed doors — in ways might benefit friends an and family or in ways that jeopardize the credibility of government A watchful public is critical to stopping such abuses.

Ten years ago, the Florida Society of News Editors, in response to legislative actions to create exemptions to the state’s open records and open meetings laws — “government in the sunshine” — launched Sunshine Sunday to remind citizens of their right to access of government functions and documents and to remind lawmakers that efforts to create exemptions unfavorable to public knowledge will not be accepted without serious challenge.

Today is Sunshine Sunday, which kicks off what is now Sunshine Week that, following the success in Florida, became a national week of support for open government in 2005 through the American Society of News Editors.

Each legislative session in Florida brings more efforts to create exceptions to the state’s Sunshine laws. Those efforts are fought by the First Amendment Foundation, Florida’s national leader in advocacy for open government.

During the most recent session of the Legislature, one local senator actually attempted to expand open government in Florida. Citizens and lawmakers were stunned to learn through a court decision that citizens are not guaranteed the right to address their elected leaders during public meetings. Senate Bill 206, filed by Joe Negron, R-Stuart, attempts to provide citizens with a reasonable right to speak at most public meetings. His bill passed through the Senate unanimously.

While laws giving rights to citizens to speak at meetings and to have access to meetings and documents are vital to public understanding and official accountability, the laws must be understood and followed by government officials.

During the past year, however, Vero Beach City Council had to hold a cure meeting — a do-over — after being called out for a closed-door meeting attended by council members.

And, to its credit, the city initiated a seminar on open government available to everyone on the Treasure Coast.

In Port St. Lucie, the Police Department numerous time has delayed the release of public records. Such repeated violations are cause for considerable concern and could put the department and the city in legal jeopardy.

On a more positive note, Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to government transparency last week released the winners of its third annual Sunny Awards for the most transparent government websites in the nation. Nationally, 214 government entities among cities, counties and school districts are being recognized, with Florida having the most at 28. Include among the Sunny winners are Indian River County government and the school districts of Indian River and St. Lucie counties with the highest “A-plus” ratings.

Notable are those governmental units on the Treasure Coast that were not included on the list. They can and should do better before another Sunshine Sunday rolls around.