Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Florida Draws the Curtain on Access": Miami Herald Editorial

Things aren’t as bad as we thought. The Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity gave the state of Florida a D- when it comes to government accountability and transparency. We were positive that, in a state where the governor won’t release his tax return, families can’t find out how their loved ones died in prison and we can’t even find out how much we’re paying Pitbull to promote Florida, the state had surely earned an F.

And it looks as if lawmakers are prepared to do even more damage in the upcoming legislative session.

The Center took a look at every state, and Florida landed down in the second half of the pack — ranking 30th — when it comes to being up front and clear about what elected officials, administrators and bureaucrats are doing on our behalf.

The Center’s report didn’t pull any punches:

Over the past several years, the rich and powerful in Florida have seemed far less accountable to open government laws than the drug-addled and hapless. So while the public is welcome to read about how a spring breaker bit off a hamster’s head, nobody was supposed to learn about how Gov. Rick Scott ousted a top law enforcement official behind closed doors, potentially violating the state’s open meetings law.

When Mr. Scott secretly sought to have the Cabinet buy a building near the governor’s mansion, an attorney with an interest in the property sued. Mr. Scott capitulated and settled seven lawsuits alleging public-records violations for $700,000 — of taxpayers’ money.

The Legislature, too, has used its authority to draw the curtains on public access, adding one exemption after another to Florida’s once-progressive Sunshine laws. Last session, lawmakers passed a body-camera exemption that closes access to police video shot in a home, a healthcare facility or any place where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” However, it’s clear by now that cameras both inform the public, shield officers from wrongful-conduct allegations and clarify the answers to difficult questions of what happened, especially if someone ended up dead.

And there’s more mischief possibly coming, according to Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, including a public-records exemption for identifying anyone who has witnessed a felony. Ostensibly, this is a move to protect people from the media. “But how do you protect him in court?” Ms. Petersen asks. Is the defendant going to be prohibited from identifying his accuser? “It does not make sense,” she says.

“What if there’s a prosecutor who threatens a witness to a felony because they want him to testify, we would never know. To know the identity of the witness helps us understand the charges, or if the case should be pursued or not.”

Hoping to give frightened witnesses some protection is understandable, especially in an intimidating “no snitching” environment. But there are broader implications.

Another bill would extend an exemption that’s about to sunset. It creates an exemption for videos, photos and audio that depict the killing of a person. It makes some sense, but again there are larger, more-onerous consequences. That’s because it also exempts images of activities leading up to the killing and immediately after. That means the death in 2006 of Martin Lee Anderson, 14, at a boot-camp youth detention center, for instance, might have been conveniently closed out and unexplored. But a 30-minute clip of surveillance video showed the teen being forced by adults to continue running track even after he collapsed. The video shows adults, including a nurse, either standing passively or laughing as the teen was dying at their feet. When all was said and done, the state shut down five boot camps.

The way things stand, Florida might earn that F after all.

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