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Guest Commentary: DeSantis is flying Florida into the dark

By MARTIN DYCKMAN - | May 26, 2023

Martin Dyckman

The governor said it wasn’t his bill, but he was plainly happy to sign it. Not long after a few strokes of his pen, he flew off into a new darkness.

The news media promptly found Ron DeSantis in Iowa, where he was campaigning full-tilt for the Republican presidential nomination, having yet to actually announce that he wants it.

He left behind in Tallahassee a new law that draws an iron curtain of secrecy over where he and certain other state officials travel and who they might be seeing on their trips and at home.

CS/SB 1616, enacted by the ruling Republican supermajority in the Legislature, forbids the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and other police agencies from releasing any records pertaining to those officials’ travels or security arrangements. DeSantis is the most conspicuous beneficiary.

Those documents have been the public’s go-to resource when governors have failed to post their travel itineraries and visitor logs. DeSantis is the most secretive governor yet.

The new law also shields, at their request, the comings and goings of the lieutenant governor, elected members of the Cabinet, the chief justice and the House Speaker and Senate President. It extends to anyone else they may designate. The entire bill is retroactive in its application.

So if the public wants to know, for example, who may have provided private corporate air travel to Florida’s public officials, it will be harder than ever to answer that question. The failure to report such freebies would break other laws, of course, but there is now one fewer way to expose potential violations of law.

The travel secrecy bill, enacted on the fraudulent premise that to disclose where people have been would endanger their future security, is just the worst of the 18 new exemptions from the public records and open meeting laws enacted during the 2023 legislative session. That is the most since the 2014 session, when there were 22. The Legislature also renewed nine other exemptions, an action required under the Open Government Sunset Review Act.

The Constitution emphasizes the importance of Government in the Sunshine by requiring a two-thirds vote in each legislative house to enact or renew an exemption. But virtually all of the proposed exemptions pass unanimously or nearly so to oblige politicians and bureaucrats who dread sunlight like fictional vampires fear the dawn.

Another significant new exemption, in CS/SB 404, shields photos or videos of the killing of children under 18 and of their corpses. The media as a rule doesn’t intend to publish such tragic material, but there are times when investigative journalists and public watchdogs do need to see the photos and videos to determine whether the government has been doing its job. On rare occasions, publication serves a public purpose. The picture of Emmitt Till, the 14-year-old victim of a racist lynching in Mississippi, lying in his coffin, his face grotesquely battered, inspired the civil rights movement. His mother had insisted on publicizing the photo to show the world what had been done to her son.

The new law allows a parent not blamed for the death of a minor to view and release a photo or video. It also allows a court to order release for good cause such as “the public evaluation of governmental performance.” How that works in practice will tell whether the Legislature did right or wrong.

Notably, the new law applies only to public agencies. Citizens who take cellphone videos of a fatal incident involving a child under 18 would be free to do what they wish with those videos.

As enacted, CS/SB 404 is better than its original version, which prohibited the release of autopsy reports of minors. Autopsy reports have been a key resource for journalists investigating the shortcomings of the government agencies tasked with protecting dependent children.

Another dubious new exemption (CS/CS/SB 238) covers up complaints against businesses, schools or government agencies accused of discriminating against employees or customers over their “health care choices.” That particular new DeSantis legislation is aimed at discouraging masking and vaccination, an issue where the Governor is far to the right of even former President Trump. The exemptions would expire when the investigations are complete, but some investigations could be endless and the targets of the complaints could be endlessly harassed in the meantime.

In a similar vein, CS/SB 1542 conceals the names of victims in cases studied by the teams that review cases of elder and vulnerable adult abuse. The exemption is overly broad and could create an obstacle in monitoring how well or poorly those agencies are doing their jobs.

Innocuous, perhaps, but facially unconstitutional, is HB 1127, which serves as a virtual blank check to conceal anything the state receives from an interstate commission to license teachers in other states. The problem is that it vaguely exempts “other matters as set forth by the commission’s bylaws and rules.” The Constitution does not permit the Legislature to delegate its exemption authority, and it should not get into the habit of writing legislation as loose as this.

In the small favors department, nine exemption bills were marked dead on adjournment. One of them would have revived an expired law that concealed the home addresses and telephone numbers of certain present and former armed service members, their spouses and dependents. The definition was restricted to those who were in special operations or who had access to information classified as secret or higher, but there are a lot of them.

Another failed bill would have allowed local governing boards to meet secretly with their attorneys to discuss claims under the Bert Harris Act from land owners claiming that government regulation has depressed the value of their property. The Bert Harris Act should be repealed, but at least the 2023 session didn’t make it worse.

Something else the Legislature didn’t do, regrettably, was close the giant loophole created by last year’s law that made secret all but the “finalist” stage of a state college or university presidential search. Applicants have been gaming that by refusing to be identified as anything but the only finalist.

That’s already happened at two of Florida’s major universities: Florida International University and the University of Florida. It’s how Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, became the new UF president.

More recently, Rep. Randy Fine, a stridently right-wing Republican from Brevard County, said he’s been approached about the presidential vacancy at Florida Atlantic University.

Former House speaker and education commissioner Richard Corcoran, who’s now the acting president at New College, is the odds-on favorite for the permanent job there if he wants it.

State Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St Cloud, was left as the only finalist at South Florida State College after three identified finalists withdrew. Hawkins, a second-term House member best known for being Gov. Ron DeSantis’s spear carrier for an anti-Disney bill, is qualified only because the school’s trustees waived the requirement for a terminal degree–a Ph.D. or its equivalent. He has only a bachelor’s degree.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, one of the trustees freely conceded the situation was political.

“You have to understand that we are political appointees, and they were all Democrats,” said trustee Louis Kirschner, speaking of the withdrawn finalists. “The governor doesn’t appoint all Republican trustees and expect us to select a Democrat.”

The Legislature was warned that the secret presidential search bill would lead to politicians becoming the presidents of Florida’s colleges and universities.

That’s probably why they passed it.

Martin Dyckman prepared this commentary for The Florida Center for Government Accountability, a nonprofit 501(c)3 dedicated to helping enforce open government laws.