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Government works hard to keep us in the dark

Published March 14, 2004

Today is "Sunshine Sunday," a day set aside by Florida's newspapers to emphasize the importance of open government and public records.

This is not some dusty topic - it is the blood and guts of our democracy. This is a day for remembering which is the master, the citizens or the government.

Florida is supposed to be one of the best states for making sure the government is visible to the people. Our Constitution says so. Our laws say so.

We have the right to know what the government is up to. The government cannot make decisions in secret. Neither can the government keep its records secret from us, except for limited exceptions.

In the spirit of Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty, therefore, all of us are entitled to march down to City Hall or the county courthouse or the state Capitol and say: I want to see what my government is doing.

Now, here is the reality, which you already know: The government fights this as hard as it can.

The government believes it could do things so much better, if only the citizens were not allowed to see. The government would be so much more "efficient."

Lots of Republicans in the government believe that. Lots of Democrats believe it. Liberals and conservatives alike believe it. If you and I were in the government, we might come to believe it, too.

Secrecy is the temptress of a democratic government.

There was a sort of "field test" of Florida's public records law back in January. About 30 newspapers used volunteers to try to obtain public documents from 234 government agencies in 62 of Florida's 67 counties.

More than 40 percent of those agencies either refused to obey the law, or made illegal demands on the requesters. Officials in some places lied to, harassed and threatened the volunteers who were doing the asking.

What the test showed was that government is not making public records a priority. It should be the first thing that every public employee is taught.

The governor of Florida, or the attorney general, should be the guardian angel of the spirit of Florida's openness laws.

Here are your rights as a citizen:

You do not have to give your name to the government. You do not have to explain why you want to look at a public record. You do not have to pay anything other than a reasonable copying fee.

If there is a legal exception that covers the record you want to see, the government has to tell you which exception applies. The government has to answer your request promptly. If you have to sue the government and you win, the government has to pay all your legal bills.

Now, every year in Tallahassee, our Legislature tries to pass a bunch of new exceptions. There are at least 57 attempts this year. For example, a blanket of secrecy would be cast over the Alzheimer's institute that Johnnie Byrd wants to build - he wants the public's money, but not the public watching him.

Another trend is to cast secrecy over the records of protected groups of public employees. It started with law enforcement, but now the Legislature hands out secrecy routinely. This year, there is an attempt to extend it to the class of county and city attorneys. County and city attorneys!

If there is any problem with the guarantee of openness in Florida's statutes, and our Constitution, it is this:

The government treats those laws as endings, instead of beginnings. The government pores over the wording, and finds any excuse it can for keeping a secret.

Over the past 25 years, I can't tell you how many times a government employee has refused to tell me something or give me a document, declaring with satisfaction, "It's not a public record."

But in my heart, I believe they are all public records, no matter what the law might say. The government has no existence at all, except by the grace and consent of the citizens. To paraphrase Rousseau, Locke, Madison, Jefferson and a bunch of other smart guys: We're the boss, and the heck with kings.

Happy Sunshine Sunday.

[Last modified March 14, 2004, 01:05:29]

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