2017-03-16 / Opinion

Sunshine Week, with clouds

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion … or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” — First Amendment, United States Constitution

That damn First Amendment. It keeps getting in the way of shadowy government corruption. It keeps insisting on open public records no matter how you read it.

Perhaps President Trump and Florida Gov. Rick Scott should consider privatizing corruption.

A federal or state Department of Corruption could be highly efficient, especially if experienced private business owners run it: Wall Street bankers, health insurance executives, oil barons, used car dealers, casino operators, pimps and a loan shark or two. That should do it.

Wouldn’t corruption then be a lot less costly and more productive than corruption managed by plodding and unimaginative government bureaucrats?

But let me put that question aside.

For a quarter-century I’ve thought about what the First means, and one thing remains clear: the First is hobbled when government officials try to hide their actions from citizens.

But they do it consistently, again and again.

“We have 1,119 exemptions to revoke open-records law and open-meetings law in Florida,” Barbara Petersen told me last week. She’s president of the scrupulously nonpartisan First Amendment Foundation, based in Tallahassee.

“This year the legislature is again chipping away by proposing new exemptions. I have 150 legislative bills on my tracking list now, and only three or four that attempt to do something good, like protect IT research at universities or personal health information.”

This week, for example, the legislature will hear a bill that exempts any information about applicants to jobs as university presidents, provosts or deans — that’s House Bill 351 sponsored by Rep. Bob Rommel (Dist. 106), a Naples Republican.

“They want to keep it secret until there’s a list of finalists,” Ms. Petersen explains. “But frequently that’s a list of one. And if that applies to university presidents does it also apply to city or county managers?”

Here’s one that’s even worse: Rep. Byron Donalds, another Naples Republican (Dist. 80), has proposed a law (HB 843) that would give local government leaders the right to meet two at a time out of the Sunshine — out of the public eye — to talk about public business. That means city council members, county commissioners, planning board members, members of school boards, hospital boards, and so on.

Maybe there’s something in the Naples water.

Apparently it’s just fine with Rep. Donalds if Commissioner Joe meets Commissioner Jack and convinces him to give a big county contract to his pal, Bill, or permitted development rights in low-density rural zones to his pal, Bud. And it’s OK if Commissioner Jack then meets Commissioner Jane, and they all agree — out of the Sunshine — to hire Bill and green-light Bud with their majority vote on a five-member commission.

And it’s peachy-keen with Rep. Donalds if nobody living in that county ever knows the difference: none of the 1.4 million citizens in Palm Beach County, or the 700,000 citizens in Lee, or the 350,000 in Collier or the 170,000 living in Charlotte.

Rep. Donalds’ bill would undo 108 years of public records precedent in the Sunshine State.

In 1909, Florida passed its first open-records law, a simple little thing that would seem to have sufficed for all time: “All state, county and municipal records shall at all times be open to a personal inspection of any citizen of Florida, and those in charge of such records shall not refuse this privilege to any citizen of Florida.”

Whoever they were, those legislators had read the First Amendment and taken it to heart.

But that law failed to do the job — corruption generally offering a bigger payday than openness. So 50 years ago, in 1967 under Republican Gov. Claude Kirk, the state passed the first “Sunshine Law” requiring that people be informed of meetings or communications between officials — any officials and anyplace, including bars, boats, restaurants, rest rooms or official meeting halls. Such communications, legislators decided then, are public records.

You might have thought that would get the job done, finally. But no.

In 1975, The News- Press in Fort Myers sued the county administrator, Lavon Wisher, in a case called Wisher v. News-Press Publishing Co. — and not just for fun. She had refused to turn over personnel records that could tell the public about the backgrounds of county employees.

Lee Melsek became part of that case, which changed Florida law again. Now a retired investigative reporter, he spent 32 years at The News- Press using public records to put corrupt officials out of jobs or in jail, or to help victims of abuse from cops or at state hospitals, to name a few. With another reporter and backed up by his editors, he began pushing for the county’s personnel records.

A judge ruled that Lee County, and by extension every county in the state, had to turn over those records when any citizen sought them.

“The government created the Sunshine and public records law because, it said, the business of government is the public’s business,” Mr. Melsek once told me (I worked with him at The News- Press in the late 1990s).

“The public owns that government. Everything that government does should be open — transparent.”

If you’re a red-blooded First Amendment American, you might just want to shout “AMEN!” and carry on proudly after reading that, since it couldn’t be more clear.

But not if you love Sunshine in Florida. In that case you should start with this premise, now during “Sunshine Week” 2017:

If you have Sunshine — and we still do in the Sunshine State — somebody will try to take it away from you, sooner or later. ¦

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