A strong stand for openness

A Times Editorial
Published December 15, 2006

Gov.-elect Charlie Crist has demonstrated this week that his commitment to open government and well-run elections, two areas where Florida could stand some improvement, extends well beyond political rhetoric. His creation of the Office of Open Government and his appointment of Pasco Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning as secretary of state are excellent steps toward reasserting the importance of two core values essential to democracy.

Some state agencies during Gov. Jeb Bush's tenure have not been as responsive as they should be about providing the public with records and basic information that should not be secret. Bush's office has been known to keep close daily track of which reporters are requesting what information from which state agency, and at times the approach in Tallahassee has been to stall as long as possible and then release records grudgingly. The Legislature, meanwhile, has been busy carving out as many exemptions to the public records laws as possible.

Crist's new Office of Open Government can quickly change that culture by coaching government agencies on how to respond to requests for records fully and promptly, and by helping resolve any disagreements. Pat Gleason, who will follow Crist from the attorney general's office to the governor's office, will be director of Cabinet affairs and special counsel on open government. Her reputation as a champion for public records and open government is long-established, and her appointment sends a clear signal that it won't be business as usual in the capital. The new office will benefit not only journalists but members of the public who want to exercise their right to keep tabs on their government.

Browning's appointment as secretary of state also should comfort Floridians tired of their state being the butt of jokes about botched elections. Since this office became an appointed rather than elected position following Katherine Harris' infamous tenure, Bush has filled it with political allies whose decisions often seemed clouded by partisanship. Browning will be the first to hold this office in recent memory who has experience actually running elections, and his record in Pasco over some 25 years is excellent. A former president of the elections supervisors association, Browning will improve the state's relations with county elections supervisors and be more sensitive to their needs in areas such as early voting. He also will be a voice of reason as the partisan debate builds over whether to scrap touch screen voting machines or require paper trails for ballots.

With these strong initial appointments, Crist sends a clear message about the importance of restoring confidence in open government and elections. Filling other jobs, including the secretary of the always beleaguered Department of Children and Families, will prove more challenging. As long as the incoming governor continues to set high standards and value competence and experience over political paybacks, he ought to do just fine.