Citizen power starts with knowledge

James Madison succinctly described the importance of an informed electorate: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” This is also a call for government transparency, as only voters informed in how their government works can effectively use the ballot box as a check against abuse of power. Today is the start of Sunshine Week, an annual reminder that holding government accountable can only happen when the people have a front-row seat.

The protections of open government redound to the people, something that every Floridian should remember. It is in the dark shadows where government does its mischief, giving lucrative contracts to friends, or abusing police powers to silence critics. Florida’s strong public records and open meetings laws are a bulwark against such abuses. But even with a state Constitution that tells government at every level do its business in public, there are politicians who resist.

Coming from the private sector as head of a large chain of hospitals, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has had a challenging time adjusting to Florida’s Sunshine Laws. Scott at one time said he never used email to avoid creating a public record. After he took office in 2011 he was embroiled in a controversy when some of his email communications with his transition team disappeared.

But he has learned on the job. Scott’s support of HB 1305, which will require future governors and statewide officials to retain transition documents as public record, helped secure unanimous passage in the Legislature.

Scott also has become more sensitive to responding more promptly to public records requests, and he has lowered fees for those records to better meet the spirit of the law.

State lawmakers served up a fairly good legislative session, with far fewer bills filed to close off public records than in years past. There was even a bright note in the economic development arena. While lawmakers renewed unjustifiable exemptions to public records law for taxpayer-funded deals that give businesses incentives to locate or remain in the state, at least they shortened the time before those deals’ details are made public.

At the federal level, President Barack Obama used the occasion of Sunshine Week to fulfill an open government campaign commitment. The website “Ethics.gov” centralizes databases of lobbying reports, ethics records and campaign finance filings, making it easier to follow influence in the executive branch.

While bright spots such as these exist, it remains a perpetual struggle to keep government business in the sunshine. As Madison noted, knowledge is power, and too often political leaders want to keep that power to themselves.

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