Florida Legislature’s secrecy leaving public in the dark

Miami Herald Editorial Board

As it nears the end of its session the Florida Legislature has had a heck of a ride. One state senator utters horrendous, hurtful words more often spewed in secret, while lawmakers instead, have drawn a veil of secrecy over how they are conducting the public’s business.

The rise and fall of Miami Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles has been well-documented. Not so much the secret deals and the bills fast-tracked at head-spinning speed. Some pave the way for lawmakers to continue to undermine Sunshine laws, which for decades have put Florida in the vanguard of government accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, Florida’s lawmakers just don’t like that.

The House and Senate have agreed upon a number of major policy issues, the result of deals between the leadership of each chamber. The resolution to expand gambling in Florida and bring a new casino to Miami-Dade rose out of undercover deal-making, which the Editorial Board lamented recently.

In fact, state lawmakers have ironed out Florida’s massive state budget with little public scrutiny, the message being, “No need to worry your pretty little heads about any of this.”

Which means, of course, that Floridians should be very worried. Open government is under attack.

Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, for example, introduced a bill that would seal the criminal records of those charged with felonies and misdemeanors if the state attorney declines to file charges; all charges were dismissed before trial; or if the person charged was acquitted.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, is concerned. We should all be. “If a criminal history record was sealed, you will not find any mention of it on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s criminal history information web page,” she said.

Though such arrests should not necessarily dog a person forever, dropped or dismissed charges don’t always mean a suspect is innocent. Rather, authorities didn’t have enough evidence to make the case.

Let’s say a criminal background check is done on someone applying to care for children. Any previous arrest would not show up. There’s no red flag.

Another bill, already sent to Gov. Rick Scott, would require the identity of witnesses to murders to be kept secret for two years, which would make it harder for the public to hold police and prosecutors accountable.

Yet another would keep applicants’ names for university presidencies under wraps.

As we have said in the past, the state is drawing the blinds on its Sunshine laws, which affirm Floridians’ right to be informed about how elected officials are — and aren’t — working on their behalf. A bill passed by the House would thwart significant aspects of that guarantee — and potentially render it meaningless — by allowing local elected officials, from city and county commissioners to school board members, to meet behind closed doors and discuss public matters in secret.

Two members could meet privately could discuss an issue, then meet with other members to sway — for good or for ill — the outcome of any public vote. The bill tries to ameliorate any potential damage by prohibiting these officials from discussing in secret public monies or a contract tied to a private business. Feel better?

This push to deprive Floridians of the right to hold their officials accountable is beyond disturbing. It’s not too late for lawmakers who truly put the people’s business first to push back.