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Tom Germond
An assault on access to information
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For a state that prides itself on having so much sunshine, Florida is regarded as a giant Petri dish.

Look through the microscope and a major source of the problem is easily identified – Tallahassee.

Say it isn’t so.

Two well-respected open-government advocates gave troubling accounts of the assault on public access to information at the third annual Sunshine Summit March 16 at St. Petersburg College’s Seminole campus.

A public integrity section of the U.S. Department of Justice compiles a “jolly list” of the most corrupt states in the nation, said author and political commentator Diane Roberts.

Guess who was number one? Yup. The Sunshine State.

“Can you believe we beat New Jersey? We beat Illinois. OK. Think about that, the most public official corruption in the country. … But how on earth, given our great open government laws, do we get to a place where we’ve got all this bad stuff, often illegal stuff, going on?” Roberts said.

Somebody has to say “wait a minute, you can’t do that,” she said.

That would be the state’s First Amendment Foundation, the press and the public because the state doesn’t have an agency to enforce open government laws.

Other watchdogs have stuck their noses in the Petri dish, including a collaborative project called the State Integrity Investigation, which gave Florida a grade of D+ in public access to information. The list goes on.

“There are many atrocities to list on open government,” Roberts said.

Sadly, a shrinking press corps, as we in the newspaper business know all to well, has made holding officials accountable more difficult. The press remains energetic, but smaller.

“Capital bureaus used to have lots of people in them. Now they either have fewer people or they are not there at all,” Roberts said.

Florida’s First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen echoed Roberts’ remarks, providing several examples of governments denying people access to public information in a timely manner, charging outrageous fees for records reproduction and refusing to let people speak at meetings.

Easy pickings are the governor’s office. Petersen said she will miss – for the entertainment factor – Gov. Rick Scott’s former minister of truth, Press Secretary Brian Burgess.

Petersen’s favorite Burgess quote was a response to a reporter from one of the largest papers in the state who was denied access for documents that were clearly public records.

“When she asked why, he said, ‘they’re not ready for prime time.’ There’s a new statutory exemption. The not-ready-for prime-time exemption,” Petersen said.

She also gave several examples of Sunshine Law abuse at the local levels. The Boynton Beach Police Department, for example, accepts public records requests only on Wednesdays.

“Random rules and conditions that operate as barriers to our constitutional rights of access,” Petersen said. “The sad truth is too often we don’t push back.”

If there is a positive note, Petersen believes lawmakers will pass legislation this year requiring governments to allow citizens to speak at their meetings.

“This is the No. 1 complaint from citizens,” she said.

Among the issues the foundation will be looking at next year are fees for public records. She said it will be difficult because local governments will fight against reform on fees.

“Governments agencies should be able to recover the cost of providing public records. They should not be in the income generating column,” she said.

She found out that the city of Orlando charges $564 an hour for computer run time.

“Their definition of extensive is five minutes or more,” she said.

No other local government in the area charges for computer run time. Who’s going to pay that?

“Something’s got to give. The law says 15 cents a page or the actual cost of duplication. So why is an agency charging $10 for a CD? That CD should cost 35 cents,” she said. “When we asked the city of Naples why they are charging $10 for a CD, they said ‘Well everybody else does.’ That doesn’t make it right.”

The city changed its policy, but the extensive use fee needs to be revised, she said. Software is available that will allow for the cost-effective redaction of exempt information.

“Why aren’t we taking advantage of these technologies?” she said.

All this is a strong indication that our state lawmakers continue to place a low priority on open government. Consequently they put a low priority on good government.

That’s life in the prime time Petri dish.

Tom Germond is executive editor of Tampa Bay Newspapers. Email tgermond@TBNweekly.com.
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