Trash and storm clouds in Broward
OUR OPINION: During Sunshine Week, the public’s right to know is once again in peril
BY THE MIAMI HERALD EDITORIAL
As Florida celebrates Sunshine Week and the importance of open government and freedom of information there are some rays of sunshine pushing through the dark clouds of secrecy.
One ray: The Florida Legislature ended its session approving legislation that requires the governor and elected members of Florida’s Cabinet, including the CFO and state attorney general, to follow Florida’s public-records law as soon as they are elected. That sounds like a no-brainer, but in the case of Gov. Rick Scott that didn’t happen. His transition team worked in the shadows post-election before he was sworn into office. Emails between Mr. Scott and key players became “lost.” That shouldn’t happen again.
Not that the Legislature was all sunny and bright. During the first half of the session, legislators tried to hide the public process of redistricting, which occurs every 10 years, by offering a “shield law” proposal that would protect legislators and their staffs from testifying in court on how they decided to draw the lines for legislative and congressional districts. Fortunately, Floridians wouldn’t stand for it and filled legislators’ phone lines and email boxes with their complaints. The legislation was dropped.
But make no mistake — there are more storm clouds forming, and right here in South Florida.
The most recent blatant snub at the public’s right to know comes from Broward County where a group called the Broward City County Management Association (BCCMA) met in Sunrise last week to discuss a $1 billion garbage contract and kicked out two journalists from BrowardBulldog.org. In a story by the Bulldog reporters published Tuesday by The Miami Herald, Cooper City’s city manager Bruce Loucks told the reporters the meeting was closed to the public because the BCCMA is a private association.
A private association representing the public interest — in this case a $1 billion contract that will not be bid out for competition and that taxpayers will be forced to pay — is a dangerous thing. Florida’s Sunshine Law does not require the staff of public elected officials to have public meetings, but a 2009 Attorney General’s legal opinion holds that when quasi-governmental groups (would city and county managers be more governmental than that?) hold an “integral” role in a decision-making process (how could deciding on a no-bid contract be private, really?) the Sunshine Law applies.
Five city and county managers are working out the details of the no-bid contract with Waste Management. Attending the private meeting were city managers Lee Feldman of Fort Lauderdale, Bruce Moeller of Sunrise, John Stunson of Oakland Park and John Flint of Weston and Broward County administrator Bertha Henry.
Broward voters shouldn’t stand for such shenanigans.
Sunshine laws don’t give just the news media access to public spending. They give every citizen the right to seek information from their local, state or federal government. But it’s getting tougher to get that information even if the law demands it.
Some cities jack up their prices for finding and copying documents to exorbitant rates. Other government entities try to hide state agency department failures that lead to the death of a child, like Nubia Barahona, or a frail elder in a state-sanctioned assisted living facility, by crying “privacy rights.” In instance after instance, The Herald has gone to court to demand information that the public has the right to know.
Government business is the public’s business — shine on.