Bringing the sunshine back to Florida

Barbara A. Petersen
First Amendment Foundation

Florida’s open government laws have long been the envy of other states and indeed other nations struggling toward the transparency their citizens deserve.  We have set national and international standards on this vital issue, but these days, the Sunshine State isn’t looking so bright.  Over the past year, the governance of Florida has been clouded by a perfect storm of negative press, an ominous convergence of investigative reports that accurately expose our state’s unacceptable deterioration – among the worst of the worst in terms of access, transparency, and public corruption.

Despite our reputation for having the best, most effective open government laws in the United States, Florida received a miserable D+ for access to government information in the State Integrity Investigation, a collaborative project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International.  Florida received a perfect score for our laws guaranteeing access to government records, but in scoring whether those laws are effectively enforced, we barely managed a passing grade.  There is no agency in Florida responsible for enforcing our right of access to government information, which means that a citizen wrongly denied access to government information is sidelined into civil court to force agency compliance with the constitutional right of access.

Another area of concern underscored by the State Integrity Investigation is the cost of obtaining public records – in addition to the actual cost of copying, our public records law allows an agency to charge a reasonable fee for the “extensive” use of agency resources.  “Extensive” is not defined, however, and costs can vary dramatically, even when requesting the same record from various agencies.  And if the records requested contain exempt information that must be redacted before release, the costs can be prohibitive and a genuine, and frustrating, barrier to access.

In a report on state transparency efforts released last March by U.S. PIRG, a federation of state public interest research groups, Florida received a score of 59 out of a possible 100 points – another D.  States not generally associated with strong public access laws such as Texas and Louisiana scored at the top of the list, and most other states blew past Florida in the rankings.

Those states with high PIRG scores were given extra points for providing user-friendly access to comprehensive information on government expenditures at all levels, allowing citizens and watchdog groups to monitor and compare government spending quickly and easily.  In contrast, Florida’s transparency websites are difficult to use and lack many of the key features identified by U.S. PIRG as critical in effective user-friendly Transparency 2.0 websites.

Adding injury to insult, a recent report from the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice reports that Florida leads the nation in public corruption.  Wow.  Number one in the nation, beating out Illinois, Louisiana, and New Jersey, states with well-known and historical reputations for dishonest and sleazy public officials. The DOJ report focuses on crimes involving abuses of the public trust by government officials, and the current state rankings are based on the number of state officials convicted of public corruption charges since 2000.

The DOJ results shouldn’t be surprising, however, given Florida’s poor scores on access and transparency.  Let’s do a little math:  Florida gets a 67 for access (State Integrity Investigation), a 59 for transparency (U.S. PIRG report), and a miserable 0 for public corruption.  That’s a combined score of 42.  In other words, an F.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  Our legislative leaders are committed to reforming Florida’s ethics and campaign finance laws, but we need more than that to root out corruption and bolster public confidence.  To bathe our government in sunshine,  we need strong and effective access laws and better government transparency.

We all need sunshine in order to flourish, and it’s time for everyone – citizens, watchdogs, advocacy groups, small business owners, the media, trade organizations, civic associations, and certainly our government – to step up and demand true and effective reform to our now tarnished reputation as the Sunshine State.  It’s time to bring the Sunshine back to Florida.

Barbara A. Petersen is president of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Tallahassee, FL, which acts as an advocate of the public’s right to oversee its government.  She can be reached at 800/337-3518.

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