It was bound to happen.
After years of eroding the public’s right to know with more than a thousand loopholes, Florida lawmakers now want to amend the public records law to make information about themselves confidential.
They want to exclude their home addresses, phone numbers and birth dates, along with where their spouses and children work. The proposal would place a similar cloak around Florida’s three cabinet members
More secrecy. No wonder trust is shaken in government.
Over the years, lawmakers have shielded certain identification and location information for current and former judges, police, firefighters, prosecutors, public defenders, code enforcement officers, probation officers and paramedics. Most of these exemptions are understandable.
But Senate Bill 832, which will be considered when the legislative session begins in January, would put state politicians behind the curtain, too.
Republican Senator Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, the sponsor of this ill-conceived idea, says the bill is needed because of the threats faced in today’s highly polarised atmosphere.
“With the animosity that we’re all seeing in the public,” Stargel told us, “I think, for safety, we don’t need to have that information so readily available to the public.”
Wait a minute. The addresses of citizens are on the voter rolls and property appraiser’s website, just two examples. Why should politicians be treated differently? They’re called public officials for a reason.
Besides, state law requires politicians to live in the districts they represent and history has shown they sometimes don’t. If their addresses are kept secret, how would anyone know they’re violating the law? They wouldn’t.
Citizens also deserve to know where a lawmaker’s spouse works. Otherwise, the potential for conflicts of interest are simply too great. What if the lawmaker is trying to get a state handout for her spouse’s home business? More than once, a lawmaker has hidden income or assets in a spouse’s name, including the address of a vacation home.
Transparency is good for the public’s business. Bad things happen in the dark. And a public office is a public trust.
It’s been more than four decades since Florida voters overwhelmingly demanded higher standards from legislators and other top elected officials. In 1976, at the urging of then-Governor Reubin Askew, we passed the Sunshine Amendment to the Florida Constitution. It requires legislators to disclose their personal finances as a safeguard against conflicts of interest. While Stargel is right about the increasing intolerance and ugliness one sees in public life, she is wrong to try to undo this constitutional right, based on flimsy evidence.
Florida law requires a statement of necessity to justify a new public records exemption. SB 832 says legislators and Cabinet members and families “may” be subject to “verbal threats, harassment and intimidation” and the harm that may result from releasing personal information outweighs any public benefit.
Stargel said she’s been threatened, though it was several years ago. She didn’t say whether she’d called the police. She said other lawmakers have been threatened, too. A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said the agency sees no problem and there’s no evidence of an increase in threats, though more people are reporting suspicious activity.
A change this sweeping demands irrefutable evidence that Stargel hasn’t produced.
True, last month a death threat was leveled against Special Master Dudley Goodlette, who heard the case of suspended Broward Sheriff Scott Israel and recommended his reinstatement. While the threat was alarming, it’s not enough to justify up-ending the people’s right to know.
Year after year, Tallahassee chips away at the public records law. Another pending bill would exempt the personal information of all county attorneys and assistant county attorneys.
Florida’s famed Sunshine Law is dying a death by a thousand cuts. Almost 1,200 exemptions are in place today. SB 832 should not add another. - Tribune News Service
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