By Bill Rufty
LEDGER POLITICAL EDITOR
Barbara Petersen is ready to walk back into what sometimes can be a legislative minefield for the state’s Sunshine Law when the new session begins March 5. She often does it alone.
Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation, said Florida’s Sunshine Law is important to every citizen, not just reporters trying to find out what lawmakers are doing.
Open government is crucial to everyone who needs information about what governments from city hall to the Capitol are doing.
“One thing never changes. When I am up talking to legislators or when I am talking to groups around the state, everybody always says, ‘Well, this is a media issue. … Access to government is a media issue,’ ” Petersen said at a recent meeting of The Ledger’s editorial board.
“It is very hard to dissuade them of that notion despite statistics that corporations and small businesses make more public records requests than do citizens and the media combined. It is also true that I am usually the only one up there (full time) complaining if they are trying to pass an exemption.”
Her biggest challenge while fighting bills that would add an exemption to the Sunshine Law is to broaden the understanding of the general public about open government laws.
Some exemptions may be warranted, especially if, for example, a certain line of officials or public servants are in jeopardy. But many times, private special interests just want to find some legislator to file exemptions that would close their dealings with government from public scrutiny.
The First Amendment Foundation, League of Women Voters, some environmental and other public affairs organizations play a constant guardian role.
Petersen’s group is one of the few full-time guardians.
The Sunshine Law extends far beyond Tallahassee. Currently, she and others are pushing for an addition to the Sunshine Law in Senate Bill 50 and House Bill 73 amending the open meeting law. The bills are commonly referred to as the “People’s Right to Speak at Public Meetings.”
The legislation was filed after some city commissions around the state closed public comment at their meetings.
“This is a huge issue for people in Florida,” Petersen said. “We had case law from the Florida Supreme Court that the public has an inalienable right to be present and to be heard at public meetings … then two cases out of the 1st (District Court of Appeal) and the 4th DCA said, ‘No, you don’t.’
“They ruled that the Sunshine Law does not specifically say you have a right to speak; therefore a government does not have to allow you to speak at a public meeting.”
The House and Senate bills, which have the support of Senate President Don Gaetz, state that government agencies must allow the public a reasonable opportunity to speak.
“They can adopt reasonable rules so they can have orderly behavior. We don’t want one person monopolizing the conversation, and they can require orderly behavior — no shouting, no pushing,” Petersen said.
“There are some exceptions, but it goes in and undoes what the 1st DCA and 4th DCA did. It has wide public support. Citizens really want the opportunity to speak to their elected representatives,” she said.
There are other issues to protect and enhance open government.
Currently, Petersen said, there is little or no enforcement. There is no agency specifically enforcing the right to access to meetings and records.
Another need in the realm of open government is a uniform and reasonable ruling on fees citizens pay for obtaining public records. Some fees for records are almost prohibitive.
Petersen noted that one woman said she had a choice of getting public records or paying her mortgage.
Another issue, which appears to have the support Senate and House leaders, is transparency in state and local government budgets, allowing citizens to see financial information and budgets from local governments, the governor and the Legislature in one central online location.
Noting that there are many dedicated public servants and elected officials, Peterson said all need to remember how they got there.
“Frequently, public officers forget who put them in office,” she said. “Recently, in Orange County, the mayor wanted to ban the use of communications devices during meetings, and one of the commissioners said, ‘Well, that’s a real statement of distrust.’
“Well, yeah, you were texting a lobbyist who was telling you how to conduct the meeting — why would we trust you?”
Recalling the adage from Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify,” Petersen said trust has to be earned and the public must demand it.
“And we have to remember that the Constitution gives us access to the entire deliberative process. … The Sunshine Law is intended to stop the cutting of deals and stop cutting the people out of the process,” Petersen said.
So the next time you think it is just our job in the news media to keep the Sunshine Law safe, look in the mirror.
Ledger Political Editor Bill Rufty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7523.