Part II to last week’s Blog entry “They Missed the Point”
Over the last few weeks, BocaWatch has raised issue with the way our elected officials cast their unauthorized influence and vote for items on the agendas of the 13 different outside agencies upon which these officials sit…
The issue was first brought to light when it became known that Mayor Haynie favors the Florida League of Cities’ suggested legislative changes that would make it more difficult for residents to obtain public records from local government.
Mayor Haynie has on other occasions used her Tallahassee connections for legislative change that thwart the compelling interests of Boca Raton residents; to wit: going to Tallahassee in 2012/13 along with then CRA Chair Constance Scott and Deputy City Manager George Brown to successfully alter state law and prevent residents from having voter referendums challenging development orders issued by the City Council; a process specifically allowed for in our City Charter….REMEMBER THE ARCHSTONE PROJECT!
Florida League of Cities is the major proponent of this access to public records change. Ms. Haynie, currently a board member at the League and its incoming President, acknowledges her support for these oppressive changes. She even penned a letter published in BocaWatch (see February article “Boca Raton Star Chamber”) offering justification for her support; justifications inconsistent with the findings in the Palm Beach Post Editorial (and other links) below.
The justification offered by the Florida League and supported by our Mayor is exampled by the recent experiences in the Town of Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream example, although problematic, is superfluous when measured against the need for access to public records. Moreover, this one example certainly does not warrant the real threat to discourage the public’s diligence in demanding transparent government; only through access to the public record can this be achieved…
It is hard enough to get government to be forthcoming with information, adding another protection to this natural unwillingness is more than threatening, it is anti-American.
See related articles:
March 15, 2016, Sun Sentinel – Florida chips away at your right to know
March 16th, 2016, Sun-Sentinel – Government transparency must improve
March 18th, 2016, cnsNews – It can take months to obtain police records, cost thousands
Editorial: Florida’s open-government laws must constantly be defended – Posted: 12:00 a.m. Wednesday, March 16, 2016, Palm Beach Post
First the good news. A proposal that would have gutted Florida’s Sunshine laws — by taking away the mandatory requirement that government agencies pay the attorney fees if they lose a lawsuit over access to public records — failed in the Legislature.
Twin bills in the House and Senate had sought to change the language in the law that now says judges “shall” award attorney fees if someone wins a lawsuit forcing state or local governments to answer a lawful public records request. The new wording would say that the judges “may” award the fees. Or maybe not.
This idea was dangerous because — with no real enforcement mechanism in existence for the state’s famous open-records law — a lawsuit is often the only way for a citizen to compel public officials to cough up records that all of us are entitled to see.
Imagine if citizens had to pay the costs of going to court, even if they win the case and force the government to follow the law. Fewer people would try it. We’d know a lot less about what government is truly doing.
The Florida League of Cities was a major promoter of the bill, largely because the tiny coastal town of Gulf Stream has been swamped by hundreds of public-records requests from a disputatious resident, then sued when the staff couldn’t keep up. A big problem for the hamlet, yes. But there’s little evidence this is a widespread problem that required a sweeping change in state law.
The Senate made some reasonable compromises. Its version of the bill (SB 1220) was amended to say that judges must award attorney fees — unless the court determined that the public-records request “was made primarily to harass the agency.” The Senate passed that bill 30-0, and then it died on its way to the House. The House version (HB 1021) died in committee.
The bills are bound to return next year, “and, hopefully, we will have come up with a better, more effective alternative by then,” Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation (FAF), the Tallahassee watchdog on Sunshine Law issues, told The Post Editorial Board.
This is Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to raise awareness of the importance of transparency in government, which originated with the First Amendment Foundation and the Florida Society of News Editors.
Florida’s open-government law is one of the nation’s most extensive. But in recent years, the Legislature has weakened it with hundreds of exemptions. This year, the First Amendment Foundation tracked 74 bills that sought more exemptions.
And that brings us to the bad news. Some of those bills passed. One, signed by the governor into law, expanded the definition of a trade secret to include financial information, shielding that information from public disclosure. Another makes secret the results of boxing matches reported to the state Boxing Commission until after the bouts air on television.
The Sunshine Manual, a how-to guide on accessing open meetings and making public-records requests, had about 250 exemptions when first published in 1985, Petersen told a gathering last week. The booklet could fit in your back pocket. “Today there are about 1,106 (exemptions), and the 2016 Legislature created close to a dozen more.”
In all these little ways, open government disappears. If Florida’s Sunshine laws aren’t constantly defended, government will all too quickly retreat to the shadows.