There are some good things and bad on the public information front this legislative session.
On the one hand, the legislature is set to consider bills that would enact most of the recommendations made by the governor-appointed Commission on Open Government Reform in its final report issued in January of last year.
On the other, our elected officials are considering a proposal that would deny half of the state's residents over age 65 access to public meeting notifications and make it darn near impossible for the rest of us to easily find out when local governments and their agencies will consider things like land use and zoning changes, conduct budget workshops and hearings, or meetings to discuss things like utility expansion or special assessments.
The First Amendment Foundation has given sunny skies to Senate Bill 1598, which would consolidate the state's public records and open meetings laws into one Open Government Act. The new act would mandate government in the sunshine training for all elected and appointed public officials and would address aspects of the current public records law that have been subject to abuse.
SB 1598 and its companion House bill also would amend the costs section of legislation related to public records requests, according to an analysis of the legislation provided on the Florida Senate Web site.
The proposed legislation would amend the "actual cost of duplication" to include copying costs and staff time but would require local agencies to provide the records without cost if retrieval and preparation take less than 30 minutes.
The new law would eliminate the current additional charge of a "special services fee" for "extensive" requests and, after 2013, would prohibit agencies from charging for the time it takes to redact, or remove, confidential information from the requested records, a specific area of abuse here in Lee County.
We are a little nervous about adding staff time to actual copying costs and think another three years is too long to allow governments to stymie access to public records with a never-intended fee levied to read over routine records.
However, legislation that would prohibit agencies like the School District of Lee County from charging parents more than $400 for a report into their allegations concerning school officials is certainly welcome, even if we have to wait to get that goal accomplished.
We much less pleased with proposals to eliminate the publishing requirement for legal ads, including meeting notices.
Touted as a money-saver, some officials propose to allow local governments to post legal ads on their Web sites instead of in local "newspapers of record." That would seriously cloud the state's reputation as one of the country's leading proponents of open government.
- In a state known as a retirement mecca, Web-only notices would deny most residents over 65 access to meeting and other legal notices as more than 55 percent of those in that age demographic do not have internet access.
- In a state known for its growing diversity, Web-only notices would deny access to meeting and other legal notices to minority residents as an estimated one-third of residents in that demographic do not have internet access.
- For the rest of us, notices would no longer be available with our morning coffee or after-work respite. Not only would we have to navigate on-line sites, we would have to wend our way through multiple sites as each agency would have the ability to post to their own address. (Currently, most newspapers, including The Breeze, provide one-stop shopping for all published legal ads at floridapublicnotices.com/ for those who choose to read on-line.)
If you think newspapers have an agenda here, we do. That agenda is two fold:
We freely admit legal advertising is a revenue source. If legal ads go away, newspapers will take another hit in a down economy but we will do what we have done thus far: find alternative revenue sources and adjust our business models, routine private enterprise adaptations.
The second part of that agenda is our primary reason in opposition to this bad legislation. We, like virtually every newspaper across the state, avow a strong commitment to Government in the Sunshine - open meetings, access to public records, and ease in attaining both.
Taxpayers have a right - an unalienable right - to know when its elected and appointed boards are meeting, when they are planning changes that affect our property values and use of the land that we own, and when they are considering enactments affecting our pocketbooks.
We firmly believe that information should be easily accessible and readily available where the public is used to reading it. Ease of access is a primary reason Breeze Newspapers reprints all city legal advertising free in the Saturday Breeze.
We are as opposed to bury-the-access maneuvers for open meetings and other legal notices as we are to make-it-too-expensive machinations for public records.
Both allow government to cloak their actions, and neither should be allowed.
As Sunshine Sunday dawns this weekend, we ask the public to remain vigilant and to not allow our state legislature to give with one hand and take away with the other.
Government in the Sunshine is a worthy goal. Let's all do our part to make sure "open government" is actually open.
- Breeze editorial