Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of the Associated Press, nails it on our Other Views page: “The Freedom of Information Act and state open-records laws are powerful reporting tools. But it’s important to remember that they don’t exist just for journalists. They are there for everyone.”
Floridians, especially, should take his words to heart, because many lawmakers are working hard to chip away at their constituents’ ability to see how the state conducts their business.
Sunday starts that annual weeklong tribute to the public’s right to know — Sunshine Week. Media outlets like the Miami Herald are, of course, among its most ardent and engaged supporters, but access should be a concern for all.
Florida remains a pretty progressive state in this regard. At the very least, it has Sunshine and open-records laws on the books, giving the public the leverage it needs to access government information. However, over the years, elected officials have chipped away at the laws’ intent. There is now a chasm between the laws’ theory and the practice.
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According to Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, “There’s not an agency in Florida that is responsible for enforcing open-meetings and public-records laws.” It’s especially discouraging when officials most responsible for ensuring transparency take a pass. That needs a fix.
When former FDLE chief Gerald Bailey and Gov. Rick Scott told conflicting stories about how Mr. Bailey came to leave his position, the severity of the ex-chief’s accusation — that he did not resign, but the governor had fired him — cried out for further investigation. But in the face of a formal allegation of collusion between Cabinet aides and Mr. Scott — a Sunshine Law violation — State Attorney Willie Meggs declined: “It doesn’t ring my bell,” he said. Unfortunately for the public, Pam Bondi, the state’s top law-enforcer — and Cabinet member — didn’t hear anything ding-a-ling, either.
In this legislative session, several bills are floating around that would further clamp down on vital information. A bill in the Senate would close access to the work history of law-enforcement officers and state workers such as those at the Department of Children & Families. That would mean that residents would never know if an officer, who repeatedly metes out, say, excessive force, has a history of such behavior. We would never find out if bad apples were dismissed from other departments, but allowed to float from job to job unaffected. The bill’s supporters cite public safety. We don’t think so.
House Bill 223 would create a public-record exemption for information that identified applicants for president, provost or dean of a state university or college. It would also exempt meetings held to identify and vet these applicants.
This is bad public policy, plain and simple. These university positions bring with them an enormous amount of clout and power. They command multimillion-dollar budgets, and those leaders often make millions. They ultimately are responsible for how students are taught and the lessons they learn in and out of the classroom. Witness University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s swift and satisfying response to a fraternity’s racist chants. The public needs to have its say in this often politically fraught process.
As Mr. Pruitt adds: “The right to know what public officials are doing, how they’re going about it, what money they are spending and why — that right belongs to all citizens.”