When the Legislature starts filing bills related to open government, there’s usually a little good, but a whole lot of bad and ugly.
This year is no different. Florida’s First Amendment Foundation is tracking roughly 100 bills, most of which would close access to records or shut the public out of meetings. Often, there’s little reason cited for hiding records or closing meetings, despite the requirement — engraved in the Florida Constitution — that statutes include a stated purpose and justification for exempting information from public review.
And the reasons have to make sense. That’s where many proposed laws stumble. They make wild assertions about the potential for misuse of information, while ignoring the bad precedent set by allowing such sketchy explanations to be written into statutes.
That’s certainly the case with bills filed this session that would exempt home addresses of certain state and local employees and elected officials from public disclosure — anywhere. That type of exemption almost made sense when it was first enacted for law enforcement officials, judges and the like — people who had a reasonable fear that someone might want to retaliate against them for an adverse ruling or arrest.
That logic doesn’t apply to the broad array of people whose addresses would be cloaked under bills pending this year. They include emergency room workers, judicial assistants and county attorneys. There’s no evidence that these groups face any real threat. Moreover, home addresses are readily available from numerous other sources, including Internet search sites.
Most egregious of these, however, is the self-dealing bill that would exempt lawmakers’ home addresses from disclosure. This information is traditionally readily available and of great public interest, given the number of elected officials who have been accused of living outside the boundaries of the district they represent.
Among the other questionable bills: The perennial attempt to hide the names of candidates for university presidencies. The persistent myth goes like this: The best candidates won’t apply for Florida university leadership posts because their names will become public. That logic would only make sense if Florida universities were actually struggling to find good candidates. They aren’t.
Another stinker is HB 1099, which would conceal boat-registration records — using the logic that motor vehicle registration records are already exempt. But Florida is required by law to keep information regarding vehicles secret. No such law exists for vessel records, and there’s no need to create one.
That’s even more true when considering that 1099 carries a huge sting in its tail. It would also exempt all records that identify people involved in motor-vehicle crashes or traffic stops for six months. This secrecy could keep the public from learning whether certain motorists received special treatment from police officers.
Floridians should always be suspicious when their public officials try to hide public information from them. This year is no different. Lawmakers should be extremely careful about blotting out sunshine, and most of these bills don’t come close to meeting the standard laid out in law.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal