How quickly can the public’s right to government information be eroded? A committee once spent 45 minutes debating whether a cheerleader should legally be considered an athlete, then passed nine exemptions to the state law in less than a minute, said Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation.
Legislators’ decisions will face more scrutiny this spring, when a scoring system drafted by Petersen will begin evaluating their support for government openness. She said the public doesn’t understand how 1,119 exemptions to the state’s Sunshine Law can affect them, and legislators aren’t always aware of all the implications either as they vote.
“We have legislators who profess to support open government, but when push comes to shove, they take action that’s contrary to the public ability to oversee its government and hold it accountable,” Petersen said.
The scoring system for the Florida Society of News Editors will assign points for about 10 critical government openness bills this legislative session. Legislators will get three points for a floor vote, seven points for co-sponsoring a bill and 10 points for sponsoring a bill that’s on the list. Votes against openness will lose points; votes for openness gain points. Legislators can also get a bonus point for communicating with the foundation about the bill. The scores ultimately will be compared to the session’s most extreme legislator – good or bad – and turned into standard letter grades for comparison. A perfectly neutral legislator will get a C.
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Petersen said that criteria is as objective as it can be. The subjective part is in choosing which bills to criticize. Petersen said she’s looking for the most substantive, far-reaching bills. Other bills, such as the commonly introduced legislation to conceal addresses of groups of people, will not be on the list, she said.
A shoe-in for Petersen’s list: A revised proposal by Sen. Greg Steube of Sarasota, who would make attorney’s fees optional in lawsuits that a government agency loses. An earlier version of the bill died last year in the House but passed the Senate. Though the bill could further change in committee, Petersen has warned that this year’s initial version of the bill is even worse than last year’s.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Dave Kerner, who served four years in the Florida House of Representatives, said First Amendment Foundation’s selection of bills may make the scorecard too subjective. However, the scorecard can help drive the public to understand more of what the Legislature does with open records.
Kerner said the Sunshine Law’s access to public records is critical to public accountability of government. Yet some restrictions to Sunshine are fully justified, said Kerner, who helped pass a bill that cleared the way for the sheriff and state attorney to serve on the county’s Criminal Justice Commission by partly exempting their activities on the commission from Sunshine Law scrutiny. He also worked to better exempt address information of police officer’s spouses and children that could lead back to the officer. Most people would agree those were good changes, said Kerner, a Democrat.
“I’d encourage citizens to look at the substance of the bills before relying on a subjective score,” he said.
Petersen wants legislators to look more closely at the substance of the bills before voting on them and think of the implications for government sunshine.
Florida legislators are often tracked, and sometimes graded, on how they vote on bills being tracked by groups, from marijuana advocates to the Florida Sheriff’s Association.
Petersen said the scorecard should bring more openness to politicians’ attitude about government openness. Some restrictions have side effects, such as increasing costs and delays associated with getting government records that harm the public seeking information about government and burden the agencies.
“By doing this project and paying attention to what our legislators are doing, I hope that we educate the public and educate the legislators on the importance of these issues and bring attention and more consideration to all of these exceptions to the constitution,” she said.