Our Opinion: Sunshine Week

By: Tallahassee Democrat

With open government, we should be proud – and vigilant

“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” – James Madison

A happy 263rd birthday today to James Madison. If he were still with us, how amazed he would be by the governmental information available in this nation and this state.

He no doubt would be honored that, long after his death, he still is considered a champion of open government. In his honor at this time every year, we celebrate Sunshine Week – an initiative to promote open government and freedom of information.

Mr. Madison certainly would be stunned by the ease with which information flows to the people. Here in Florida especially, with open-government laws that serve as a model for other states, the people are guaranteed access to government’s decision-making processes. But beyond the ability to attend meetings, we can follow government on our home computers or even our mobile devices.

We can track bills as they are rewritten in the Legislature, check databases on anything from government expenditures to what our neighbors pay in property taxes, and even read the governor’s emails.

For that and more, our lawmakers deserve praise.

But the citizens’ access to information is far from perfect. And every year, there are efforts to nibble away at what the public can know.

For Sunshine Week, the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation conducted a survey of Florida’s 67 counties as well as 47 selected cities, with journalism students going to local government websites and rating how well they could find information with a reasonable search.

Most governments posted annual budgets and meeting agendas, but other records were not as easy to come by. Leon County’s website, redesigned in 2011, was one of eight county sites given a perfect score for ease of use. Tallahassee also was singled out as having a user-friendly site and is one of the few to post check registers, showing who gets what money. But the city was dinged because one of the things the students couldn’t find was how how to file a public records request, electronically or in person.

The complete survey will be released in April.

In the Legislature, the First Amendment Foundation and others are warning against some proposals that would limit the public’s right to know. Among these are:

? HB 1437: The Drug-Free Public Officers Act, also before the Legislature this session, would require public officials to undergo a drug test within 60 days of taking office or being re-elected. But HB 1437 creates a public record exemption for results of the first test as well as other records or explanations related to the test. So, what is the point of the test?

? HB 1167, SB 1240: Expands public record exemptions related to competitive bidding.

? HB 421: Exempts from public record a taxpayer’s email address given to a tax collector for the purposes of sending tax notices.

? SB 1514: Creates an exemption for the email addresses of registered voters. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed an identical bill last year, but some legislators just won’t give up.

Don’t think for a moment, though, that legislators are out only to keep the public in the dark.

There are proposals that advance open government, too, including new reporting requirements for citizen support and direct-support organizations that bolster the missions of state agencies (HB 1153, SB 1194), expansion of ethics training for constitutional officers (CS/SB 846) and a requirement that the process of dealing with RESTORE Act money be open (HB 1375, SB 1610). SPB 7064 would make major changes to rules on public records and meetings, affecting anything from fees charged for records to organizations to which government agencies pay dues.

It’s not a government of the people unless the people know what government is doing. Let’s strive to stay in the Sunshine. James Madison would be proud.

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