It’s Sunshine Week, that annual celebration of Americans’ right to public information — information that helps them see how elected officials and public administrators are working on their behalf — or not.
In Florida, unfortunately, that celebration, is pretty brief. Editorial boards around the state are fighting legislative efforts to keep residents in the dark, charge exorbitant fees to reproduce public documents and pass scores of exemptions to the state’s Sunshine Laws.
Some legislators have in their sights two perennial targets — newspapers and the people whom elected officials are supposed to serve.
Currently, local municipalities and counties are required to place ads in papers that alert residents to upcoming government meetings, public hearings, zoning changes, special elections, etc. But Rep. Randy Fine and Sen. Dennis Baxley each have filed bills that would eliminate “legal notices” in Florida newspapers.
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However small the print or inscrutable the government-ese — yes, it’s time to start using plain English —the notices guarantee that residents can have a say — at the podium or in the voting booth — on issues that will directly affect their quality of life. And why shouldn’t they? The right to petition the government — to rail against a proposed tax increase, to push back against budget cuts or fight high-rise in the neighborhood — is as old as this democracy itself.
No matter to these lawmakers. House Bill 1235 and Senate Bill 1626 remove “provisions relating to the publication of legal notices in newspapers.” The Senate bill would authorize “government agencies” to publish legal notices on their websites. The House proposal specifies that it would require “counties” to publish legal notices on their websites.
In a 2017 survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, 83 percent of Floridians said that their state and local governments should be required to publish legal notices in the newspaper, and on a regular basis. That study also showed that 82 percent of Floridians would not visit a county or city websites to look for public notices.
“The audience for a city website is a fraction of what a newspaper website and print have,” Dean Ridings told the Editorial Board. Ridings is president of the Florida Press Association.
Our cynical guess is that that’s no surprise to government officials and others who would prefer to conduct constituents’ business out of the sunshine, under cover, in the dark. Talk about cynical. Lawmakers are staging an assault on Floridians’ right to know, an underhanded move. They should make clear to their legislators that they will not tolerate it.
In addition, this misguided effort is yet another legislative swipe at media outlets that spend the time and the resources to hold everyone from the governor to the prison guard accountable. Reporters ask officials the hard, embarrassing questions of accountability, and that’s not something every official appreciates.
Riding said that lawmakers’ stated goal “is to save the cities and counties money.” But, we ask, at what cost? Newspapers, including the Miami Herald, do make money from legal notices on its pages. However, that benefit is far outweighed by the need for community members to know that their government is working transparently and that they can hold it accountable.
Legal notices keep government in the sunshine. There should be no place and nothing to hide.