Panel hears pleas for sunshine

Despite the open records law, there is a veil of secrecy, speakers say.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published August 24, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Barely two months old, Florida's new panel on open government is getting plenty of advice on improving public access to official decisions and records.

The first-of-its-kind nine-member commission was created in June by an executive order from Gov. Charlie Crist. For the next 18 months, members will study and invite public comment on access to records and meetings, and the more than 1,000 exemptions to the public records law, before proposing changes to Crist and lawmakers.

In two days of hearings that ended Thursday, speakers urged the state to lift the veil of secrecy shrouding clemency proceedings for convicted felons, require speedier public access to officials' "snail mail" and e-mail and foster a culture of openness throughout the vast bureaucracy.

Editors, public officials and lay citizens all said the state's landmark government-in-the-sunshine law is routinely violated or treated lightly.

A delegation of residents from Taylor County, south of Tallahassee, described how local officials stonewalled routine requests for information.

"Our Sunshine Law is under attack, and so is open government," said Pat Yack, editor of the Florida Times-Union. The Jacksonville paper uncovered what it said was widespread secrecy by City Council members, triggering a grand jury investigation.

"No notices, no agendas, no minutes," Yack told the panel.

Rick Watson, speaking for Americans for Tax Reform, said Florida should emulate five other states by putting all government financial information on the Internet.

"There's a tendency not to be open. With the technology now, it's so easy to do it," Watson said.

Jere Moore, a retired newspaperman who also worked in the Governor's Office under Bob Graham, said technology should allow state agencies to post all incoming and outgoing mail on a daily basis.

Crist said he supports the idea, as long as it does not create any security problems.

But a commission member, Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee, said that when a similar public access system was in effect when she worked in Charlotte County, it was rife with problems, such as offensive content and false rumors spread through e-mail.

"The management of that was very difficult," Lee said.

George Sheldon, an assistant secretary of the Department of Children and Families, called for a lifting of curbs on information sharing among state agencies.

To the surprise of some panel members, Sheldon said the state juvenile justice agency is not allowed to share information with the DCF, despite their overlapping responsibilities involving minors.

"The best way to restore faith and confidence in government is for agencies to be open and transparent," Sheldon said.

The commission - which plans hearings in Orlando, Sarasota and Fort Lauderdale - is headed by Barbara Petersen, director of the First Amendment Foundation, a statewide group that safeguards public and media access to records and meetings.

Jeanne Grinstead, deputy managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times and president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, serves on the commission.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com at 850 224-7263.