Two significant efforts affecting Florida voters got under way this week in Tallahassee:
First, the 37-member Florida Constitution Revision Commission, or the CRC, began its work Monday to update the state’s Constitution, a major undertaking that happens only once every 20 years. The commission’s job is to propose potential changes for voters to approve. Important work, no doubt.
At the same time, the First Amendment Foundation began its efforts to make sure that the commission makes all aspects of its work transparent and available to all Floridians who wish to see the process — as required by the state’s Sunshine Law, whose open government blueprint has come under attack recently, especially by the GOP-controlled state Legislature.
As the commission prepared to get to work, and its rules and regulations were discussed at a recent meeting, the foundation, a champion of open government in the state, detected suspicious wording.
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The commission announced a baffling change as it outlined the procedures it would follow: It said that the CRC’s records will be “accessible” to the public, but in the process erased the word “open” from the rules in effect since the last time the commission convened.
We all know that in Florida, all public records are indeed open for citizens to see. So why was the word “open” deleted?
That omission perked up the ears of the foundation’s president, Barbara Petersen. Does the word “accessible” mean the same thing as “open” or something different? Does it give the people doing this most important job of recommending changes to Florida’s statement of guiding principles unwarranted wiggle room to actually make public access harder? These are good questions — but ones that Floridians should not have to ask.
The CRC adopted another troubling rule, one allowing meetings between three or more CRC members at which commission business is discussed without notifying the public.
But this is a lesser standard than those followed when similar bodies meet. They state that meetings between two or more members of a collegial body should be opened and noticed to the public.
The danger of allowing so many members to meet out of the sunshine is that each can then meet with other members and agree on matters related to the CRC’s work — without doing it where the public can see.
According to a Herald article by reporter Mary Ellen Klas, the foundation sent a letter to CRC chairman Carlos Beruff — a Manatee County home builder who ran unsuccessfully for Marco Rubio’s Senate seat — asking the CRC to amend its proposed rules to bring the commission into line with existing law regarding open meetings and public records.
The letter wants the commission to amend the rules to follow the standard articulated in Florida statutes, which states that, “Public records shall be open to personal inspection and copying at reasonable times …”
And asking that the number of commission members who can meet privately remain at two or more. The work of this commission is just too important not to be carried out in the full light of day.
Florida’s open-government standards should not be weakened.
Chairman Beruff sent a response to the foundation’s letter to the Editorial Board, which indicates he’s listening.
“Transparency is of the utmost importance to the Commission and all meetings will be noticed and open to the public,” he said. “I look forward to working with the Commissioners to adopt rules which reflect the importance of transparency and ensure total public access and involvement throughout this process.”
The CRC will meet in Miami on April 6 and in Palm Beach on April 7. At a time when many citizens are asking, “What can I do?” to become more engaged in civic life, showing up at these meetings is an excellent start.