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    A Times Editorial

    Yes on Amendment 4

    Voters have a chance in November to give Florida's government-in-the-sunshine laws greater protection from the Legislature's annual assaults on them.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 6, 2002

    It is fitting that during the year marking the 10th anniversary of Florida's Sunshine Amendment -- the constitutional amendment establishing the state's commitment to open government -- voters have the opportunity to protect our public records and meetings laws from unwarranted exemptions. Strong support for Amendment 4 will remind those lawmakers who have blithely closed off records and meetings that the public wants and expects access to the business of government.

    The amendment would change current law by requiring a two-thirds vote by the House and Senate before an exception can be approved by the Legislature. Currently, only a simple majority in both houses is needed.

    A recent federal appeals court decision striking down the blanket closure of immigration hearings for Sept. 11 detainees reiterated the importance of exposing government processes to the scrutiny of the public and press. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said bluntly: "Democracies die behind closed doors."

    Accountability and responsible governance are byproducts of an open system, but our representatives in Tallahassee have increasingly forgotten their duty to Article I, Section 24 of the Constitution, Florida's government-in-the-sunshine guarantees. Between September 2001 and May 2002, lawmakers established 16 new exemptions to public records and open meetings, bringing the total approved over the past decade to more than 850. Often these exemptions put vital information out of public reach as favors to various interest groups.

    For example, the 2001 Legislature voted to exempt adverse incident reports submitted by nursing homes to the state. Horror stories, such as that of a woman attacked by ants in her nursing home bed, prompted the state to demand information on such incidents, but lawmakers closed the reports to public view. The exemption kept the public from knowing which nursing homes had endangered the health and safety of their charges, and prevented the public from holding government officials accountable for failing to follow up on abuses.

    Fed up with the way the Legislature routinely passed laws cutting off public access, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and Rep. John Carassas, R-Largo, decided to make exemptions more difficult to adopt. They sponsored the joint resolution putting Amendment 4 on the ballot. Had the supermajority requirement been in place during the past year, at least two record exemptions voted on last session would not have made it into law.

    Florida has a proud tradition of broad access to the workings of our government. Yet we are allowing lawmakers to whittle away at this right year after year. Amendment 4 may not stop the process, but it would certainly slow it down. The Times strongly urges a "yes" vote.

    Ballot summary

    Amendment 4 requires that laws providing exemptions from public records or public meetings requirements must, after the effective date of this amendment, be passed by a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature.

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