New state, local rules could eclipse government transparency
Last March, The Breeze addressed a couple of proposals here on our Opinions pages.
One would have impacted your right to know what Lee County’s various governmental councils, commissions and boards are up to on our behalf.
The other would have impacted the ability of many Cape residents to fully take part in the decision-making process of their city government.
The first was a perennial weed cropping up again at the state level — a move to transfer public notices from “third party publication,” essentially newspapers, to a delineated but not yet existing, fee-based government website.
Those among the State Legislature supporting the 2021 proposal weren’t promising any savings to government entities, businesses and private parties who must, by law, provide notice before they can take certain actions.
No, the plan was to create (with tax dollars) a whole new website to be established by the Florida Supreme Court with overflow from the fees to be paid (also with your tax dollars and cash out of your wallet) for an unrelated — and new — state program.
There was much opposition to the proposal from not only newspapers and freedom of information organizations, but from businesses which follow legal advertising and count on easy access to notices of everything from meetings, zoning changes, requests for bids and regulatory ordinances to, like us, budget proposals, tax hikes, government “fees” and assessment bumps. The measure would have made these notices harder to find.
A compromise was reached through the efforts of the Florida Press Association and other groups.
A privately funded statewide website for all legal notices was created, keeping the print component while lifting requirements that had limited legal advertising to mostly larger and paid publications.
After 10 months of effort and millions of dollars, Floridapublicnotices.com, the new centralized repository for all public notices run by the Florida Press Association, was operational. It provides an easily searchable, one-stop source for public notices statewide.
It was heralded nationwide with numerous states looking to consider a similar system.
A scant 68 days after the site was up, running and being used, the State Legislature fast-tracked a committee bill that will tank it.
HB 7049 allows government agencies “the option” to instead use their county’s “official website,” or other private website designated by the county, to publish legal notices. Print publication would no longer be required meaning the companion component, that new centralized site for all notices, may be gone as well.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, summed this up succinctly when the bill was still in committee in the Florida Senate.
“If I wanted to hide something from the public that’s required to be noticed, this is exactly the process I would use. I would throw it on one of the 67 different websites,” he said.
The bill, which has passed both the House and the Senate, awaits the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The second issue addressed a year ago in March was a proposal by the Cape Coral City Council to replace its long-standing tradition of Monday evening meetings for both its regular and workshop sessions with a new day for each and an early-morning start time for one.
Council changed the day for voting meetings to Wednesdays, still at 4:30 p.m., and switched the workshop sessions to 9 a.m. on scheduled Fridays.
The elected board then backpedaled on the workshop change. Council moved its discussion sessions back to Wednesdays, a couple of hours earlier than their voting meetings, as mornings were deemed too early for those who work to attend and voice their views.
Until a few weeks ago.
Council now meets for “Committee of the Whole” sessions at 9 a.m. on scheduled Wednesdays.
If you work and would actually like to step up to the mic for public input time when projects and proposals first come forward for discussion, so sad, too bad. Write a letter, send an email or burn a vacation day.
Why do things like records and meeting access matter?
They matter for three primary reasons:
Making legal notices harder to find impacts your right to know about the things that affect your life and your pocketbook.
Making workshops harder to attend impacts your right to be part of the conversation about the things that affect your life and your pocketbook.
Legislation and policies that make it more difficult for citizens to be part of their government by making access harder is about controlling the message — controlling not only what you hear, but when and where you hear it.
That is the antithesis of transparent governance, especially in a state that has long touted its open records and open meetings laws as Government-in-the-Sunshine.
Think this is just some self-serving “media” hyperbole?
With a goal of presenting a “uniform message,” the city of Cape Coral is now formulating a policy to dictate how those we elect — members of the Cape Coral City Council — may answer questions from reporters. To accomplish this, all requests for comment is proposed to be channelled through the city’s administrative communication’s office. City staff would provide elected officials with appropriate “bullet points” of information suitable to be shared with, well, you.
A couple of things.
As of press time, Gov. Ron DeSantis had not signed HB 7049.
We urge him to veto it. Not only is it bad legislation, it’s not even well-developed bad legislation.
It has large accountability gaps in just how proof of publication — now stringently required for all notices required by law — is to be guaranteed nor is there a provision for third party — ie. independent –oversight.
Two, if the residents and Council are content with 9 a.m. workshops, so be it.
Works for us.
It is, in fact, “better” for us from a business hours staffing standpoint, one of the things that drove the change on the city level.
But if you feel the change hampers your ability to attend and speak at these meetings, let our elected officials know. We suggest one of the Wednesday “regular” meetings that still begin at 4:30 p.m., the ones where Council votes on the things they have already hashed out at their workshops.
Three, we urge you to follow the Council conversation on regulating individual member’s ability to speak for the record with whom they want, when they want.
We point out there is no requirement that an elected official speak with a reporter.
The choice is their own.
Which is how it should remain.
Florida’s Sunshine statutes date back to 1967.
The ability to obtain records and attend meetings at which the public’s business is discussed was once sacrosanct.
But through the years there have been efforts, too many of them successful, to control the message and keep the public in the dark.
Exemptions and exceptions to public record and meeting laws and legislation that shuts the public out continue erode protections long codified into law and imbedded in our state’s very Constitution.
As Sunshine Week — a week dedicated to greater transparency, the importance of open government and freedom of information — comes to a close this year, let us say it’s becoming progressively shady out there.
Government transparency eclipsed seldom slips back into full light.
Preserve Florida’s Sunshine by demanding our officials stop their encroachment.