By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
What is going on in Tallahassee?
First, lawmakers open the unusually early session of the state legislature by uncharacteristically proposing to expand public records access. And now, they want to give Floridians the right to actually be heard at public meetings?
What a concept. What’s next? Laws making it easier to vote?
Nah. Just kidding there. Let’s not get carried away.
The latest development, Stuart Sen. Joe Negron’s SB 206 that institutionalizes the right to be heard at public meetings, actually had the First Amendment Foundation sending a giddy e-mail to media and supporters this week headlined: “Starting The 2012 Session On The Right Note!”
Typically at this point in the session, the First Amendment Foundation is busy sending out e-mails detailing dozens of attacks on the state’s Sunshine Law.
“I chose to emphasize the positive,” said First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen. “There are some bad bills being proposed, but nothing as bad as we’ve seen the last couple of years.”
The last few sessions have seen efforts to exempt city utility records, complaints against doctors and rabies vaccination records.
So what has happened this year?
“I think they’re just so focused on the economy and the budget and reapportionment,” Petersen said.
In addition, unpopular Gov. Rick Scott is in the midst of trying to transform himself from the harsh, self-pronounced state CEO to a kinder, gentler governor.
Scott’s office was actually the driving force behind the bill introduced by Senate President-to-be Don Gaetz that would expand the definition of public records to include meetings and communications involved in the transfer of power between outgoing and incoming lawmakers.
The catalyst for that proposed law was an awkward mistake. Apparently unsure of their public records responsibilities, Scott’s team lost some of the transition records last year. Embarrassed by the incident, members of the governor’s office spearheaded efforts to expand the Sunshine Law so there would be no doubt about what was covered.
Negron’s bill, which would decree that Floridians have a “reasonable opportunity” to be heard at meetings, was also a reaction to an oversight.
In the past couple of years, two courts ruled that Florida’s vaunted Sunshine Law did not specifically grant the public the right to be heard at meetings.
Those rulings provided an impetus for bringing back the right-to-be-heard bill. Negron introduced similar legislation last year, but it withered and died without enough support.
This year, there seems to be a different attitude. On Wednesday, SB 206 quickly passed in the Rules Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections, 11-0. It was moved forward to the entire Rules Committee.
“I think (SB 206) comes from (Negron’s) heart,” Petersen said. “If you heard the testimony, it was very personal for him and some of the other senators.”
Of course, that’s not to say lawmakers have had a total makeover into open government activists. There are still the typical overreaching attempts to restrict access to information.
“There’s one bill that would exempt birth dates of some public employees, such as police officers, from public records law,” Petersen said. “(The bill’s author) claims that, by not exempting birth dates, it would subject them to fraud. If that’s really a problem, why should it apply only to those employees?”
Petersen said there are probably less than a dozen bad open records bills this session, and a few worthwhile ones, such as Sen. Arthenia Joyner’s proposal to exempt information identifying victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
“It seems to be more issue-oriented this session,” Petersen said. “I don’t know if things are really different or if it’s just this one (right-to-be-heard) issue.”
The first days of a legislative session can be like spring training in baseball. Anything is possible.