CALVIN KNIGHT | THE LEDGER
Government is nothing if not records. In Florida, it starts with the state constitution.
The constitution establishes the three branches of state government — legislative, executive and judicial — and lays out their roles and restrictions.
Famously, in Florida, records are assumed to be open — although there are exceptions.
Consider in scant outline the passage of a law and the records such an action produces:
A state representative or, for this example, a state senator files a bill. The filing creates a record. The bill is typed in a format spelled out by Senate rules. The rules are a record on their own.
The bill is referred to committee, creating a record.
Staff and other reports create more records.
Amendments, votes on the amendments and votes on the bill must be recorded.
When the bill moves to the Senate floor, more amendments and votes create additional records.
Coordination with the House — more records.
The bill’s passage creates a record to be sent to the governor. His signature creates yet another record.
Two branches of government have been involved so far. A challenge of the law in court could bring in the third branch, with the likelihood of many more records.
Indeed, without the records created during every step of passing the law, a person, company or organization would not be able to set in motion judicial checks and balances, as specified in the constitution.
One of the difficulties of protecting public records from exemptions that lock them away is legislators’ assumptions that efforts to keep records open primarily benefit news organizations, Barbara Petersen told the Editorial Board on Wednesday. Petersen is president of the First Amendment Foundation, Tallahassee, which is recognized as the nongovernmental expert and champion of open government in Florida.
“When I’m up talking to legislators or when I’m talking to groups of people, everybody always says, ‘Well, this is a media issue,’ ” Peterson said. “It’s very hard to dissuade them of that notion, despite statistics that show, for example, that corporations and small businesses make more public records requests than do citizens and the media combined.”
Thus, the need for openness applies to all.
“Everybody is really dependent on good open-government laws,” Peterson said.
To demonstrate and explain the broad need by Floridians for open government, Petersen and the foundation plan a Sunshine Symposium on March 16 at St. Petersburg College.
This important-and-fundamental effort will focus on four principles for state government to embrace on behalf of Florida residents:
■ The right to speak at public meetings.
■ Enforcement. “There is no agency tasked with enforcing the constitutional right of access to meetings and records,” Petersen said.
■ Reasonable fees. “When I was on the Governor’s Commission on Open Government Reform, we had a woman testify that she had the choice of either paying her mortgage or paying for the public records she had requested,” Petersen said. “We shouldn’t have to be making those choices.” A recent complication is the conversion of records to computer files, which has often made access more expensive and more difficult — the opposite of the desired effect.
■ Transparency — a view into finances of the state government. In short, “access to the state checkbook,” Petersen said, so the public can see how state money is being spent.
In a government of the people, by the people and for the people, the proceedings and records of the government belong to the people. This, Florida’s government should make certain.
[ Note: A podcast accompanies this editorial at TheLedger.com/podcast. Listen to the Editorial Board’s full interview with Barbara Petersen. The podcast will play on a personal computer. Or download it free at the iTunes Store for use on an iPod or similar player; search: Ledger Editorial. ]
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