Advocate: It's time to reform Sunshine Laws

petersen sunshine laws first amendment foundation nwfdn

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, talks to Daily News editors and reporters about the obstacles citizens have encountered while trying to request public information documents from state and local government officials in Florida.

DEVON RAVINE / Northwest Florida Daily News
Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 10:50 AM.
First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen is never short on stories about Florida politicians playing fast and loose with the state’s Sunshine Laws.

Whether it’s Orange County Commission members texting lobbyists in the audience at their public meeting for speaking suggestions or Team Santa Rosa getting cited for “repeated violations” of the law and receiving less than a slap on the wrist, Petersen has seen about everything.

Since 1995, Petersen has been advocating, sometimes “as the only squeaky wheel,” for open government.

This year, she told members of the Daily News Editorial Board on Monday, she wants to recruit more people — a lot more people — to her cause.

“I’m a little weary of being the only squeaky wheel when, in fact, everybody needs access to good information from government,” she said. “This year, I want to get everybody in one place at the same time to agree on a set of principles we all agree we need for reform.”

At an event on March 16 at St. Petersburg College, Petersen intends to engage groups from across the political spectrum — “ACLU to Tea Party Nation” — in an effort to establish a broad-based set of principles to take to Tallahassee with a request for Sunshine Law reform.

“We all agree there’s a need for reform. This is so I can say, ‘It’s not just me, it’s 123 others who feel we need open government,’ ” she said. “I’m trying to make everyone understand that good open government laws benefit everyone. People say, ‘Oh, it’s just the media,’ but that’s not true.”

Petersen said she sees in state Senate President Don Gaetz, state House Speaker Will Weatherford and Gaetz’s son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, stronger advocates for open government than she had to work with last year.

She said she wants to work with Don Gaetz in 2013 on two legislative priorities: ensuring the public’s right to speak at public meetings and developing an accessible website that increases the transparency of state government.

“Those are personal priorities of mine and priorities I share with Speaker Weatherford,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Monday.

 After Escambia County’s Community Maritime Park Association board decided it could hold meetings without providing an opportunity for citizens to speak, and the Court of Appeals upheld the decision, Don Gaetz and state Sen. Joe Negron sponsored legislation in 2012 to incorporate into law the public’s right to speak.

The legislation got “smothered in private” in the House, said Gaetz, R-Niceville.

This year, Negron, R-Palm City, said his bill has a strong sponsor and “is viewed much more favorably in the House.”

Petersen also wants to see the Florida Legislature create a public-access website that allows the state’s citizens to look at budgets, contracts and proposed legislation.

Under Senate President Mike Haridopolos, last year senators entered a $5.5 million contract with a private company to create a “transparency” website, Petersen said. The site, as it turned out, was available only to senators.

Gaetz has canceled the contract and has promised to this year build a website accessible to the public for much less money.

“I’m pleased Barbara Petersen is pleased with some of our efforts,” Gaetz said. “Those are two important priorities but not the only parts of a broad-based ethics package I expect the Senate to pass and the House to seriously consider.”

Petersen will also advocate again in 2013 for the state to force local governments to charge “reasonable fees” for public records.

“One woman told me she had to make a choice between paying her mortgage and paying for public records,” she said.

State fees for records are frequently a barrier preventing the public from seeing what their government is doing, and in a world of electronic communication, that shouldn’t be so, Petersen said.

She said the state needs to define “extensive use” in regard to billing for public record searches, to provide a consistent hourly rate to charge for record retrieval and eliminate employee benefit charges included in the retrieval cost.

“Everybody understands government records ought to be easier to get,” she said.

Petersen said she would also continue this year to advocate for better enforcement when violations of the Sunshine Law occur.

She cited Team Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa County’s now defunct economic development arm, as a group that was taken to task for multiple law violations but not prosecuted.

“State attorneys are either reluctant to get involved or see no evidence to warrant prosecution, so they don’t prosecute,” Petersen said.

The high cost of litigation is likewise preventing newspapers and private citizens from taking agencies to court for Sunshine Law violations, she said. City and county governments also typically use taxpayer money to cover the cost of litigation.

“The weakest, weakest part of our law is no enforcement,” Petersen said.

Contact Daily News Staff Writer Tom McLaughlin at 850-315-4435 or tmclaughlin@nwfdailynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomMnwfdn.



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