Too many Florida lawmakers fail to make the grade, impose more public-records secrecy

Miami Herald Editorial Board

State Rep. Joseph Geller received one of the highest grades in the state Legislature for his support of public-records laws.
State Rep. Joseph Geller received one of the highest grades in the state Legislature for his support of public-records laws. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Florida lawmakers received a final grade on their support for public-records laws during this year’s legislative session in Tallahassee — a score given by Florida newspapers with information culled by the state’s premier open-government group, the First Amendment Foundation.

Unfortunately, lawmakers’ scores are nothing to boast about to their constituents back home. And South Florida legislators barely made a respectable grade.

For its Sunshine Week project, a nationwide initiative to educate the public about the importance of transparent government, members of the Florida Society of News Editors created a scoring system to grade legislators on their introduction of public-records bills, final votes, and overall support of the Sunshine Law, the oldest state-level open-government law in the country, giving citizens the right to public records.

Of the 160 state legislators, three received Fs; 77 got Ds; 71 got Cs; and nine earned Bs.

Local lawmakers scored poorly, except for State Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, the only B+ in the group. Good for him for having more than a modicum of respect for the spirit of the Sunshine Law.

Two-thirds of Miami-Dade and Broward lawmakers earned either a C minus or D plus. The C minuses all went to Democrats, while the D pluses went mostly to Republicans, according to the scorecard results. Sounds like a bipartisan Hall of Shame is in order.

Sadly, this is no surprise. State lawmakers have been chipping away at sunshine laws for years. Florida’s public-records law says that, “All state, county, and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection by any person.” When the government refuses to comply with a public-record request, sometimes putting costly hurdles in place, a citizen’s only recourse is to go to court.

Lawmakers were graded largely on their support of crucial bills calling for secrecy or actions away from public scrutiny.

Besides bills, there are other ways to circumvent the people’s right to know, and Florida lawmakers made use of it at the last session.

Barbara Petersen, head of the First Amendment Foundation told the Herald the recent session accounted for “a near record number of new exemptions created,” or devious ways to get around the law. The session gave birth to 26 exemptions and expanded another, then instituted yet one more exemption during its special session. Gov. Rick Scott who must sign bills into law, should support transparency over secrecy.

Many South Florida lawmakers took issue with their grades and the methodology used, the Miami Herald reported. Several lawmakers cited their votes in favor of HB 111 — a bill that would protect the identification of murder witnesses. The bill passed and already has been signed into law.

Some said that they should not have been punished grade-wise for supporting a bill that, even though it restricts the public’s access to knowing the identities of witnesses, helps solve murders. On this rare occasion, the Editorial Board, which wholeheartedly supports the mission of the First Amendment Foundation, supported this law, seeing the need to prod frightened crime witnesses forward help law enforcement make arrests and to give crime victims a shot at seeing justice done.

As more and more Floridians take civic engagement seriously, we hope that, when they run up against a public-records brick wall, they will remember the lawmakers who got them there, and ask, Why are you hiding this from us?