Lawmakers get low marks on Sunshine

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The Clay County School District may be one point away from being an “A” District this year, but our legislative delegation did not fare so well on recent grades they received for part of their performance.

Sen. Rob Bradley(R-Fleming Island) received a C-plus, while Rep. Travis Cummings(R-Orange Park) and Rep. Bobby Payne(R-Palatka) both received a D-plus in a ranking of how well they supported the state’s Sunshine Law in this year’s Florida Legislature.

Based on information compiled by The Florida Society of News Editors, more than half of Florida’s state lawmakers received a “D” or “F” grade on the first Sunshine Scorecard.

The Scorecard was produced using information from the Tallahassee-based nonprofit First Amendment Foundation on how well lawmakers supported legislation that added exemptions to public records and meetings laws in 2017. None of the state’s 160 legislators received an “A” grade and only nine earned a B. There were 71 Cs, which is considered average. And half of the legislators received a subpar grade, with 77 Ds and three Fs.

The Legislature passed a near-record number of Sunshine Law exemptions this year, adding to more than 1,100 exemptions added over the years. Every exemption makes government shady and less clear to the voters.

The Legislature passed 17 new provisions – and reauthorized six others – that create carve-outs in the state’s Sunshine Law, according to the Foundation, which advocates for transparency in government and annually tracks Sunshine-related legislation.

The number of exemptions this year is the second-most since 1995 – five fewer than the record 22 exemptions lawmakers passed in 2014, said Barbara Petersen, president of the Foundation.

Petersen said these attempts to weaken government transparency in Florida are bi-partisan. For example, it was State Rep. Cynthia Stafford(D-Miami) who sponsored a “witness protection bill” that would shield the identities of murder witnesses for two years after the crime. Stafford said the bill was needed to stop what she called “the no-snitch mentality.”

Regardless of these bills’ perceived merits, each one slowly chips away at Florida’s transparency, which had served as a model for the nation.

“The vast majority of the bills we track are justified, and we take a neutral position on them, or we work to make them such that we’re neutral,” Petersen said.

Petersen also said these exemptions chip away at the Florida Constitution.

“We agree that the requirements of our famed Sunshine Law can be an inconvenience for government officials at times. But the right of Floridians to oversee their government and hold it accountable for its actions – a right imbedded in our constitution – far outweighs such minor annoyances,” she wrote one politician in a letter.

And it’s not only the Sunshine Law exemptions that created issues for the 2017 Florida Legislature. Last minute budget negotiations – specifically education funding – were shrouded in secrecy and the House, in particular, advanced several highly consequential Sunshine exemptions that – although many didn’t pass – sought to gut the spirit of the Constitution’s open government guarantees.

One unsuccessful far-reaching exemption would have let two local elected officials meet in secret about government business without having to let the public know or having to disclose what they discussed. House Bill 843 made it to the House floor, but failed in an unprecedented outcome.

Now, back to Clay County’s lawmakers.

Cummings and freshman lawmaker Payne voted identically on the seven bills used to produce the Sunshine Scorecard.

They voted yes on the following bills: HB111 would hide IDs of murder victims, SB118 would hide criminal histories, HB441 adds court clerk liability protection, SB1018 required telling the public about major pollution and HB7093 hides employees’ families’ info. Both also voted on

HB351, which would hide college president searches, but the bill died in the Senate Education Committee and HB843, which would let two board members meet privately, but the bill failed to make it out of the House. Both lawmakers received three points each for voting on HB441 and SB1018.

Meanwhile, Bradley received nine positive points for voting no on HB 111, yes on HB 441, yes on SB1019 and yes on HB7093.

Hopefully the scorecard will cause lawmakers to think twice before further closing the door on open government in Florida, but I’m not so sure about that. To read the scorecard, go online at http://floridafaf.org/sunshinescorecard/.

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