Commission recommends improvements to Sunshine Laws

01/26/09 Seán Kinane
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Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law could soon receive a renovation following today’s approval of a final report by the state’s Commission on Open Government Reform.

In June 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist issued an executive order to create the nine-member commission. By teleconference on Monday, the Commission on Open Government Reform unanimously approved its 180-page final report called “Reforming Florida’s Open Government Laws in the 21st Century.”

Barbara Petersen is president of the First Amendment Foundation and serves as chair of the Commission on Open Government Reform. “We had a lot of testimony from citizens around the state about how poorly they were being treated … by their government.”

Petersen says that because the commission’s report is being finalized so close to the beginning of the legislative session, most of their recommendations won’t translate into bills until 2010. But one “dramatic change,” which was suggested by the former and current secretaries of the Department of Children and Families, Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon, could occur this year.

“It’s the recommendation of the commission that we allow access to investigative records of the Department of Children and Families. Currently those records are closed unless the Department goes to court and gets a court order allowing the Department to provide access. This would open those records. It would protect identifying records. … But we would have an opportunity to know what the Department’s doing and how it’s doing it.”

Another recommendation, Petersen says, would make email from elected and appointed officials part of the public record even if sent from a personal email account.

Petersen says making government finances more transparent and avoiding excessive fees for public records request are also among the commission’s recommendations.

“We have some recommendations regarding fiscal transparency, suggesting that we have some requirement that government agencies post some information regarding contracts they enter into online so it’s easy to find and easy to get to. We have recommendations regarding the extensive use fee. This is a fee that agencies can charge in addition to the cost of duplication.”

Those fees vary widely. According to Petersen, the commission heard testimony from someone who was told that accessing 100 emails would cost $200 and from another who said that their public records request would cost $165,000.

Two commissioners raised concerns about the final report, and their letters of concern will be included with the report. Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee is one. She said one of her concerns has to do with being able to exempt information from public records requests because of attorney-client privilege.

“It has really restricted, I guess, the information that we are able to give our clients – both written information as well as information in a meeting. And probably the biggest issue is that the Sunshine Law restricts the attorney-client conferences to just the attorney, the board members, and the chief executive of the county – the county administrator. That restriction does not allow expert witnesses or department heads or others who have very technical information to be a part of those executive sessions.”

Lee is also concerned about the report’s recommendation to prohibit officials from using Blackberries during public meetings.

“They have recommended that any hand-held devices, such as Blackberries, should not be used during public meetings. We question whether that’s really appropriate because many times people are getting messages that have nothing to do with the public business on those Blackberries. People are getting updates on their children's illness or other kinds of things and they should be allowed to continue the use of them if it is not related to the public’s business.”

Lee is confident that the Legislature will use the Commission on Open Government’s report to improve the state’s Sunshine Laws. “There has been a groundswell of organizations behind some of the issues that I identified for you earlier.”

The commission’s report will be forwarded to the Legislature, which will study it to determine whether to make any updates to the state’s open government laws.

Commission on Open Government Reform

Commission on Open Government Reform draft final report

Hillsborough County Attorney office

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