Keep on shining
House Speaker Johnnie Byrd has done little to conceal his contempt for the news organizations that have asked him to account for his unusual spending habits. Byrd, the avowed fiscal conservative, decided to turn legislative public relations into a growth industry this year and initially refused to answer questions about how much tax money he was spending. When reporters demanded financial documents that are public as a matter of law, however, Byrd had no choice.
The result: The public was told that Byrd had increased the communications staff from one to 13 people at a cost of more than $600,000. He then dropped his other plan -- dialing 50,000 30-second phone calls an hour to tell Floridians what a good job government is doing.
The Byrd story is a simple illustration of how open government is supposed to work in Florida. Public officials are held accountable by constitutional provisions and laws that require them to conduct their business in public.
These provisions, known commonly as "Government in the Sunshine," are an important check on the power of government and are enormously popular with citizens. In November, voters approved a constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to enact any new exemption to public records law, and they did so by a ratio of more than 3-to-1.
These principles are well-established in Florida, but they are never safe. Every year, some lawmakers want to carve out new exceptions. In the past decade, in fact, lawmakers have adopted more than 850 exemptions to open meetings and public records.
This year, only two weeks into the annual legislative session, more than 30 bills have been filed that could lead to new exemptions. Ominously, nearly 13 of them are of the fill-in-the-blank variety. Reads one, in its entirety: "Be it enacted by the Legislature of the State of Florida: Section 1. It is the intent of the Legislature to create an exemption to public-records requirements. Section 2. This act shall take effect upon becoming a law."
Newspaper editorial boards across the state come together today, on "Sunshine Sunday," to call attention to the laws that exist for the purpose of keeping the public informed to shed light on those who would rather work in the shadows.
Already, a bill has been filed to hide records of serious medical mistakes that are reported to the state, which is particularly odious at a time when the Legislature is planning to limit the liability of doctors accused of malpractice. Another would allow companies to conceal their use of public utilities under the guise of preventing "identity theft." Still another would keep secret the cellular phone records of police officers, as though such an action somehow protects the officer from criminals (Hillsborough taxpayers have watched as sheriff's Maj. Rocky Rodriguez was forced to retire shortly after being accused of placing $6,000 worth of personal calls on his departmental cell phone).
The sun that shines on Florida government offers a view for every citizen, and it is worth savoring. Government is made better by exposure to the people it serves, and each year, as some legislator tries to dim that view, the question must be asked: What are you trying to hide?
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times