Op-Ed

A cloud over Florida’s Sunshine Laws

TNS

In Florida we pride ourselves on our policy of government in the sunshine. We expect all aspects of lawmaking and enforcement to be transparent so voters can see and participate in our democratic process and have access to relevant information to hold elected officials accountable.

Most governors have honored this commitment to open government and have tried to follow the spirit of the law.

To his credit, while governor, Charlie Crist formed the Open Government Commission to address some of the loopholes in the current law and to deal with some needed changes because of technological advances. I had the pleasure of serving as the Senate representative.

The commission also included members from the First Amendment Foundation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Attorney General’s Office, the Florida press and many other distinguished stakeholders committed to strengthening our laws. We met throughout the state and took public testimony on how the public perceives its ability to obtain information on state government and its actions. One of the areas we addressed was what punishment for noncompliance should be.

Many thoughtful recommendations came out of this process, but sadly did not become law. My cynical belief is that we tout Florida’s Government in the Sunshine but purposely keep the laws nebulous with little to no accountability or punishment for overlooking them, stalling them or downright ignoring them.

There are a couple of recent examples.

▪ Gov. Rick Scott claims to believe strongly in Government in the Sunshine. But prior to his re-election he insisted that no state business was discussed on his personal emails, despite claims to the contrary, and refused to release them. After the election, his administration did release the emails that did indeed show state business was discussed. Oops.

It’s not illegal to use your personal email, but the messages regarding state business are subject to public disclosure and harder to trace through private email accounts. Many emails — it’s impossible to tell if all — were eventually disclosed, but certainly not in a reasonable time frame.

It could be interpreted that the letter of the law was met, but it does not appear the spirit of the law was. Some of these emails were two years old. It’s difficult to hold an elected official or his staff accountable after so much time has passed. It’s also difficult to put actions into context when they are removed from the time period they occurred.

Why use a private account if not for trying to hide something? Citizens have the right to see what is happening, how decisions are being made and who is influencing those decisions — in real time.

The administration bragged that Project Sunburst had posted executive staff emails online — a gimmick to give the false impression of their commitment to transparency — while concealing these emails.

If timely disclosure doesn’t happen, what’s the penalty? None, it seems.

▪ Another recent example is the hard-fought release of emails from a political consultant who was heavily involved in the redistricting process. In response to voters overwhelmingly approving the constitutional amendments requiring the Florida Legislature to draw “Fair Districts” without benefitting either party, political consultants did the partisan dirty work in the shadows. Their work product would have remained out of public view if it weren’t for a lawsuit that connected the dots of their involvement in a public process that decided the most basic tenet of our democratic process — how we are to be represented.

Those who benefited were at least two steps removed, giving them plausible deniability. Some suggest that the Republican Party of Florida should punish the consultants involved, but that ignores the fact that the desired outcome was achieved. Instead, these consultants were paid millions for campaign work and redistricting advice. Heck, the party even picked up their legal bills.

In fact, those consultants involved will likely pick up more clients with the disclosure of their close ties to the powerbrokers and their willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

There needs to be a deterrent, some real teeth in these laws, but that’s unlikely to happen. Unfortunately, in the political arena where winning is everything, questionable or devious behavior is seldom punished and usually rewarded — if it achieves the desired results.

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