Florida Legislature never tires of blocking the sunshine.
Every year the Florida Legislature discovers more things to exempt from open records laws. And my, do these things accumulate. According to the Florida First Amendment Foundation, the state has 1,159 exemptions to open government laws with more on the way.
One that’s on the way this year would allow members of the Legislature to keep their home addresses secret. This is a public records exemption now enjoyed law enforcement personnel, state prosecutors, emergency responders, justices and judges, human resource directors, code enforcement officers, tax collectors, and the spouses of people with these jobs. People in more than 50 occupations.
Certainly this is a time of harsh politics and nobody wants to see demonstrators show up on their subdivision sidewalk. But keeping this information public is not without some usefulness.
It was useful in 2017, the year Rep. Daisy Baez, D-Coral Gables, had to resign from the Florida House of Representatives after The Miami Herald came out with stories saying she didn’t live in her district and had lied to elections officials about where she did live. She later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor perjury charge. (Fun fact: U.S. House members can live outside their district, and like U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz, they often do; Florida House members, however, are required by the state constitution to live within the districts they represent.)
Cases like this can’t come to light when the addresses of legislators are state secrets. And really, you’d be surprised at how often officeholders in a highly mobile state like Florida play games with their stated place of residence.
Yes, some loss of privacy is a trade-off in public life. Unpleasant but unavoidable. Even when you live in a secret, undisclosed location.
The bill to shield the addresses of legislators and state Cabinet members now is in the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee after winning approval by the Ethics and Elections Committee. Another bill would add judicial assistants to this growing list. Another would add county attorneys. Being exempt from public records laws is getting be a status symbol.
Meanwhile, a bill to exempt the process of choosing college and university leaders from the Sunshine Law (SB 832) is ready for a Senate vote after passing the Rules Committee on Wednesday. That measure would allow early vetting and ranking to happen in secret and would keep the identities of the applicants confidential.
That way students, parents, taxpayers and faculty can be in the dark until at least three finalists are chosen at least 21 days before the final vote — more than enough time to engineer a done deal.
The idea behind the law is that confidentiality would attract more applicants. But since Florida university presidents are paid like rock stars who perform heart surgery on the side, there is seldom a lack of applicants for these positions.
There is a problem with term-limited legislators with no higher educational experience pushing their way into university positions so they can stay in the Florida pension system. Being able to position one of these guys without a lot of advance notice would be easier if this passes.
Having a selection process is excellent training for anyone coming to work in a Florida public institution. The rules are different here, as the old tourism slogan proclaimed. An open process gives applicants a taste of how different the rules really are.
Best to weed out people who have a problem with that early on.
Like the bill expanding the number of occupations exempt from public records, this bill is perennial. It was filed last year, the year before that and several other times since 2013.
The Florida Legislature never tires of weakening open government laws but I wish it would.
MARK LANE, DAYTONA BEACH
Editor’s note: Lane is a columnist for the Daytona Beach News-Journal.