Assaults on sunshine
We may be in the Information Age, but our Legislature keeps trying to put records containing important public information out of Floridians' reach. This year, lawmakers' annual attempt to close off whole categories of records is broader and more brazen than usual.
Today, on what has been dubbed "Sunshine Sunday," the St. Petersburg Times is joining other Florida newspapers to oppose this trend and alert the public to the dangers of allowing government to operate in the shadows.
Floridians have a proud and long-standing commitment to open government. We passed one of the nation's first public records laws in 1909. In 1992, we voted overwhelmingly to place public-record and open-meeting guarantees in the state Constitution. Exemptions to public records laws are allowed, but they are supposed to be rare. Every exemption must be justified by a statement of public necessity and drafted as narrowly as possible. The requirements underscore the gravity of locking away otherwise public documents.
Somehow, over the past decade, the duty to protect open government has been nudged aside by another, more ignoble purpose: the desire to bestow political favors. This session, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have inspired some legitimate exemptions, such as a bill to exempt the blueprints of water treatment facilities, arenas and other public buildings. But in too many other cases, the attacks are being used as an excuse to close off records with no demonstrable impact on public safety.
Last year, the Legislature put off limits nursing homes' adverse incident reports -- forms submitted to the state when a serious error led to significant health consequences for a resident. The exemption was an outrageous act against the public interest. When more than 90 percent of nursing homes have staffing shortages, the potential for mistakes or abuse is high. Floridians looking for the best care available will now have to do so without a vital piece of information.
A recent poll by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication found that nearly 98 percent of Floridians believe they should have a right to view "state inspection records, violations and long-term-care reports" of nursing homes. Clearly, in exempting those records, the Legislature showed its contempt for public opinion.
Among the approximately 60 bills seeking exemptions this year, doctors and pharmacists want an exemption for the adverse incident reports they are required to submit to the state. That would leave consumers with no way to know if a doctor botched surgery, or if a pharmacist made a serious mistake, until an investigation is complete. These are not bills that qualify as a "public necessity." They are political favors for powerful, advantaged professionals who want to keep damaging consumer information out of the public's hands.
One of the worst bills to be considered this year, HB 1951, would close meetings when public agencies are deciding which companies would be awarded government contracts. The exemption would remove public oversight from the procurement process. SB 378 would close off public utility records, ostensibly to protect against identity theft. The real push is from public utilities seeking to keep competitors from gaining access to their customer base.
These are bad bills, but Floridians usually don't pay much attention to erosions of open government. The annual assault on our constitutional right occurs year after year with little public outcry.
Maybe if the public better understood just how valuable access to records is in our daily lives, there would be more interest. Think about the information needed to make a responsible home purchase: the selling price of other homes in the area, the neighborhood crime rate, the quality of area schools and the burden of local taxes -- all public records.
Employers peruse criminal records to evaluate job applicants. A police officer's personnel file will tell a victim of police brutality whether that officer has been involved in similar incidents. And of course, news organizations use public records as a way of sniffing out government corruption and mismanagement.
Though normally competitors, Florida newspapers have united today in an effort to sound the alarm. Access to public records is vital to holding our government and interest groups accountable. Floridians need to make their voices heard in Tallahassee. A shadow is spreading over open government in Florida, and without citizen pressure on lawmakers, it will continue to lengthen.
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