Our Opinion: Open government takes a beating
by Editorial Board
What’s that you hear? It might be the sound of mice in your walls. Or maybe it’s just the Florida Legislature, slowly gnawing away at the idea of open government.
In the recently ended regular session, legislators passed 22 new open-government exemptions, according to Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.
If you’re keeping score, that’s a record.
In addition, nine other exemptions were re-enacted. In fact, 12 percent of all bills passed restrict access to public records. Just as upsetting was what didn’t pass that could have helped affirm the public’s right to know.
Ms. Petersen, who has been head of the First Amendment Foundation since its creation in 1995, acknowledges that most of the exemptions passed would not have a major impact. But she still was concerned with the number of exemptions, which topped by far even the 12 passed during a regular session and five special sessions in the paranoia of post-Sept. 11.
Of special concern to Ms. Petersen was Senate Bill 1320, which provides exemptions from public records for information held by the Office of Financial Regulation relating to family trust companies. The exemptions make it almost impossible to find out how these companies operate. The constitutionally required “public necessity statement” in SB 1320 lists concern that identifying members jeopardizes their personal and financial safety and that release of some information could “damage a family’s reputation.”
We’re sorry, but inconvenience is no reason to close public records.
Ms. Peterson also was baffled by the death in the House of SB 1648/HB 1151, after it passed the Senate unanimously. The bill would have made it easier to request public records.
The Florida League of Cities was leery at first, but the First Amendment Foundation worked with the League on changes, and in the end, the league’s president endorsed the bill.
Part of the five-point agenda of the pre-session “Work Plan 2014” of Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford was improving government accountability. It’s a shame Mr. Weatherford apparently forgot that goal over the session’s 60 days.
There was a bit of relief from bills that didn’t pass, including an exemption for the university presidential searches and an exemption for email addresses held by tax collectors.
But it’s a sad day when the public is left to celebrate not having a precious right further eroded.