By: Barbara A. Petersen
Looking at the growing list of proposed exemptions for consideration during the 2015 legislative session, I kept hearing the lyrics to the Four Tops “It’s the Same Old Song” running through my mind. Our legislators, it seems, are quick to respond to complaints from government agencies and special interest lobbyists about too much openness, yet fail to hear the concerns of citizens about the difficulty in accessing government information, a right of access protected in our state constitution. No one could be blamed for thinking our current legislators as they confront the issue of transparency are obsessed with expanding big government.
March 15 is the first day of Sunshine Week, an annual week long celebration meant to highlight the importance of open government laws and the public’s right of oversight and accountability those laws are designed to protect. The project started in Florida in 2002 as a joint effort between the Florida Society of News Editors and the First Amendment Foundation, and was picked up by the American Society of News Editors a few years later and expanded to cover the entire country. One full week of celebrating Sunshine in Government.
In preparing for Sunshine Week 2015, I spent time reviewing the articles I’ve written over the years, and the lesson learned from my effort should be disturbing to everyone who believes our government works for the people and not against them. Year after year, too little has changed. Year after year, it’s business as usual. The same old song, when everyone knows the status quo is not something the citizens of this state should have to live with if it doesn’t serve their needs.
Since 2002, the Florida Legislature has created 138 new exemptions to our constitutional right of access to the records and meetings of our government. Last year, nearly 12% of all bills passed were new exemptions to our right of access. In contrast, the last time the Legislature passed a law that improved our access laws was 20 years ago – the Electronic Records Act of 1995.
The question is, why should you care? The ability to access the records and meetings of government is critical to our ability to govern ourselves, to maintain civil liberties and historic freedoms. Our ability to oversee and hold our government accountable for its actions is a fundamental right in this country, and the principles of freedom, democracy, and open government are inextricably and intricately woven into the very fabric of our nation. Certainly, ignorance should never be a legislated part of that fabric.
When your school board is considering closing schools, you want to know why. When your city is hiring a new city manager, you want to know who is applying and whether they have sufficient experience. When a law enforcement officer is charged with using excessive force, you want to know more about the officer’s background. When you see a news report about an abused and neglected child or disabled adult, you want to know that government is doing its job in protecting those who can’t protect themselves.
We all want to know our government is doing its job, that our elected officials are fulfilling promises made and faithfully representing our interests and not the interests of those who would corrupt the process, that our public employees are doing their job and not abusing their authority. Yet without strong open government laws, access to such vital government information is beyond our reach, and every time our legislature creates another exception to our right of access, our ability to oversee our government and hold it accountable is diminished, and we find ourselves cast out into the shadows where responsible citizenship does not thrive.
Arguably, Florida has the most progressive open government laws in the country, laws protected by a constitutional guarantee of access unprecedented in this nation. But our right of access is under constant threat from top to bottom, across all levels of government, and is constantly vulnerable to erosion. Like most erosion, we not always aware it’s happening until it’s close to unstoppable.
This week, you’ll be seeing a lot of stories about the problems we face accessing government information – reports of restrictive government policies that limit public comment at open meetings or that require exorbitant fees for copies of public records, and excessive delays in providing access to records. You’ll see editorials about the handful of proposed exemptions that are unwarranted and unnecessarily shield government information from public view.
What you won’t see, though, is anything about our legislature working to improve our right of access, to create an effective enforcement mechanism so we’re not forced into court every time there’s a violation of our right of access, to ensure we have affordable and timely access to public records, that we’re not shut out of public meetings.
Unfortunately, the same old song.
Barbara Petersen is president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, a position she’s held since 1995.