We’ve spotted an unwelcome trend in Florida politics, and, for once, it doesn’t involve the usual suspects — such as guns, illegal immigrants, tax cuts, or corporate welfare.
This time, it’s a fundamental aspect of Florida’s Constitution and operations at state and local government. Consider the following examples reported by various news outlets during just the past three months:
• A state appellate court last month ruled that the St. Petersburg City Council violated the law by holding a closed-door meeting to discuss a controversial ordinance related to shooing homeless people out of city parks;
• The city of St. Pete Beach settled a case alleging wrongful closed-door meetings over revisions to the city comprehensive land-use plan;
• Four current or former members and the general counsel of the North Broward Hospital District Commission were indicted for conducting private meetings to discuss the ousting of the hospital CEO;
• Two Martin County commissioners and a former member were arrested for destroying public records related to a lawsuit involving a company that operates a rock quarry;
• A local TV station in Riviera Beach sued the city after City Council members refused to turn over text messages that may indicate they discussed the firing of the city manager out of the public eye.
If you haven’t picked up on the theme yet, we’re talking about Florida’s Sunshine Laws, which govern, and guarantee, the public’s access to government records and meetings of elected officials.
We bring this up because this is the annual Sunshine Week, an annual initiative of the Florida Society of News Editors to call attention to the value of, and threats to, our open government laws.
Florida’s laws and tradition of allowing its citizens access to records are among the oldest in America, dating to 1909. Measures providing for access to government meetings are a half-century old. Both have been reaffirmed by voters over the past 50 years.
For the most part, state and local officials comply without question, which makes Florida both progressive and unique when compared to other states.
But as shown by the disappointing cases above, some public officials still seek to sidestep the law.
Nor do state lawmakers tire of trying to push more of government into the shade. The First Amendment Foundation, an open government watchdog group in Tallahassee, notes that Florida lawmakers have enacted 1,122 exemptions to our Sunshine Laws over the years and entertained another 122 this session.
Which is why the media and the public must partner in remaining vigilant in defense of our right to know what are leaders are doing. We must not take this obligation lightly. Once government officials sense or believe we won’t strive to protect this domain, we will soon lose it.
Sunshine Week, celebrated nationally each year since 2005, gives us the best opportunity to remember this. And it’s important to understand we observe this moment around this time each year in order to recognize the birthday of James Madison on March 16. Madison’s comment to William T. Barry, lieutenant governor of Kentucky, in August 1822 remains the theme for this week, and is well worth recalling:
“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Let’s walk in the sunshine.