State Politics

Will Florida’s Constitution revision follow Sunshine laws?

Carlos Beruff was named by Gov. Rick Scott to be the chairman of the Constitution Revision Commission. Beruff was a candidate for U.S. Senate last year and announced his candidacy at Vicky Bakery in Miami, February 29, 2016.
Carlos Beruff was named by Gov. Rick Scott to be the chairman of the Constitution Revision Commission. Beruff was a candidate for U.S. Senate last year and announced his candidacy at Vicky Bakery in Miami, February 29, 2016. Special to the Miami Herald

Florida’s unique quest to update its state Constitution begins Monday as the 37-member commission meets for an organizational session in the Florida Senate chambers, and tensions have already started to mount behind the scenes.

The group, dominated by Republicans, will meet briefly for two hours, review its proposed rules and go over the state’s ethics and Sunshine laws. The draft rules, however, are already stoking some debate.

The First Amendment Foundation has asked the group to amend its rules to adhere to existing state law and others are raising questions about changes from 20 years ago that allow the group’s chair, Carlos Beruff, the Manatee County businessman who was selected to be chairman of the commission by Gov. Rick Scott, to consolidate power.

Under the proposed rules, Beruff will be given sole discretion over what expenses will be reimbursed, and he will be allowed to use his committee referrals to kill proposals that have been amended by members.

As happened 20 years ago, the commission will be divided into committees, and those committees will have the power to adopt and amend proposals. But there are other significant departures from the rules adopted by the 1998 Constitution Revision Commission, which succeeded in passing eight of the nine proposals it put before voters. Many on that commission, which included a bipartisan blend of members, attribute the carefully-crafted rules of the commission for helping bring consensus and strengthen the proposals that won voter support.

Beruff will have the power to decide on the committees and hire the staff of the committees. He has the power to refer proposals that have been amended back to committees — where they can be killed with an unfavorable vote -- and anything that has come out of a committee is not subject to amendment. It will take a two-thirds vote of the full commission to reverse these rulings.

Another change says that CRC records will be “accessible” to the public and strikes the word “open” from the 1998 rules. Why the change? Is “accessible” meant to mean something different than “open?”

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, is asking the the Constitution Revision Commission to amend its proposed rules to bring the commission into line with existing law regarding open meetings and public records.

In a letter to Beruff on Monday, she asked the commission to amend the rules to follow the standard articulated in Florida statutes, which states that “public records shall be open to personal inspection and copying at reasonable times ...”

Petersen also raised concerns about a proposal that require meetings be open between three or more CRC members at which Commission business, “a lesser standard than that found in Article I, s. 24(b) requiring that meetings between two or more members of a collegial body be opened and noticed to the public.”

“We should note that the higher standard under Article I applies to every collegial body in Florida except the Florida legislature, and we strongly urge the CRC to adopt the Article I standard rather than the weaker legislative standard,” Petersen wrote.

“Given the gravity and importance of the work of the Commission and its impact on citizens across the state, we would expect the CRC to hold itself to the highest standards of transparency, allowing all Floridians to oversee the work of the Commission and hold it accountable for its actions,’’ she said.

(The First Amendment Foundation is a non-profit advocate of open government and open records. The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are members.)

There is no indication as to how much money will be allocated to pay for the expenses of commission members but that is being determined by the governor’s office, the House speaker and Senate president, said Meredith Beatrice, spokesperson from the commission.

She said the rule regarding reimbursement of commission expenses was rewritten to “enhance clarity. The intent is still the same.”

“The chairman is committed to empowering the commissioners at the committee level so they can do their job,” Beatrice said.

Beatrice said that a process is also being established for lobbyists who attempt to influence the commission to register.

One important rule that has been carried over from 1998 is the requirement that in order for a measure to be put on the November ballot, it must receive a super majority of 22 votes from commission members.

Other changes include allowing members to attend meetings via teleconference, giving Beruff the power to determine if amendments offered by members to change proposals are germane. Rules can be waived by two-thirds vote of those present and voting — which includes people present only by teleconference.