EDITORIAL: Turning sunshine into shadow
Far too many people believe that “government in the sunshine” — specifically, laws requiring that government meetings be open to the public and that government records be available for public inspection — is an arcane idea of interest mainly to activists and news reporters. That’s not true.
Everyone benefits when we can see what our government officials are doing, what they’re saying and what they’re spending taxpayers’ money on. Sunshine laws make such transparency possible.
Nevertheless, politicians often consider the public’s evident lack of interest in open meetings an excuse to shut the doors. They consider the public’s disinterest in open records an excuse to render more and more records off-limits.
Every time the Florida Legislature meets, for instance, there are new attempts to carve out exceptions to the state’s sunshine law. When the Legislature convened last month, bills already were in the hopper to exempt from public records the home addresses and phone numbers of various government employees, including judges and code enforcement officers. Another bill would require that a juvenile’s criminal history be automatically sealed, removed forever from public view, once the juvenile has completed all sentences.
The problem isn’t just in Tallahassee.
In Walton County, it took a citizen’s lawsuit and a judge’s ruling to persuade George Ralph Miller, a former county attorney, to release records pertaining to the county’s controversial 2010 purchase of land off Chat Holley Road in Santa Rosa Beach. Circuit Judge Howard LaPorte said Jan. 30 that Mr. Miller had withheld records the plaintiff was entitled to see.
A little farther east, the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office stonewalled for weeks this newspaper’s request to view an incident report regarding Lowell Kelly, heir of Destin matriarch Mattie Kelly. Mr. Kelly was injured in December and died Jan. 20. A sheriff’s captain argued that the report was not a public record. He was wrong.
The long-sought Walton and Holmes records are finally coming into the sunshine. But their long stay in the shadows ought to remind us that government’s natural inclination is to operate quietly, behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny. Citizens must be vigilant.