2019 and Florida’s rapidly eroding Sunshine Law

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2019 was a dark year for sunshine in Florida government:

  • The voter-approved Marsy’s Law amendment to protect victims showed us the true meaning of unintended consequences. In some places, police are now refusing to identify murder victims.
  • The Florida Legislature passed a law to seal an untold number of criminal arrest records that don’t lead to a conviction (good luck with that background check on your new babysitter).
  • State Sen. Kelli Stargel has given a whole new meaning to entitlement, introducing a bill that would make secret the home addresses and phone numbers of state legislators.
  • The Florida Cabinet held a meeting, which was supposed to be open to the public, literally on another continent.
  • Barbara Petersen, the First Amendment Foundation’s longtime champion of government-in-the-sunshine, retired from her job.
  • And the Florida Department of Law Enforcement demonstrated its contempt for enforcing open government laws by rejecting, with the flick of a wrist, an investigation into possible Sunshine Law violations at the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

    Fortunately, Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t so eager to put to rest the last item on that list.

    In October, the governor issued a welcome executive order assigning the airport authority issue to Seminole-Brevard State Attorney Phil Archer.

    Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala — whose office has a conflict of interest — had asked DeSantis to reassign the case, and the governor complied.

    The allegations center on events earlier this year, where the airport authority attempted out of the blue to hire new attorneys who just happened to be sitting in the audience for that particular meeting. The only two elected officials on the authority — Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings — smelled a rat and said so.

    That prompted Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation to ask for an FDLE investigation. The agency quickly replied that the case was circumstantial and that no witnesses had come forward to give evidence.

    The Sentinel reported last week that the FDLE is now investigating the case, and will turn its finding over to Archer’s office.

    That’s more like it.

    But that was just a successful skirmish in a war for information and transparency that the public is losing.

    For years, public officials have gotten more comfortable with the idea that open government in Florida is more a set of suggestions than a system of laws rooted in the state constitution.

    That attitude can be found from low-level city functionaries to the highest reaches of state government, where long delays, exorbitant fees and even lawsuits against the public are the latest methods of bureaucratic evasion to requests for information.

    Sunshine investigations are rare and unwelcome and prosecutions even rarer. No wonder government feels so emboldened to defy the spirit of the Sunshine Law.

    As much as we applaud DeSantis for referring the airport authority case to another state attorney, this may be a case of physician heal thyself.

    The governor’s office throws up numerous obstacles to public records requests, taking months to fulfill even simple requests from the public and from reporters.

    The governor needs to set a better example, unlike the Cabinet meeting he led earlier this month to consider three finalists for the job of state banking regulator.

    Considering the controversy surrounding the last regulator, Ronald Rubin, it was curious that DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis saw no need to talk about Rubin’s replacement. DeSantis moved to make the appointment, Patronis seconded the motion and — voila! — it was a done deal by telephone in a meeting that lasted just 77 seconds.

    Not that the selection required hours of debate, but how is it possible for the Cabinet to make a pick without uttering a single word about why they thought this person was the best candidate?

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