Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Pope’s View: Be a warrior for Sunshine in government (SAR, by Margo C. Pope, Columnist)

Nicely done column from St Augustine Record, whose former house ad once insulted bloggers: x 

Pope’s View: Be a warrior for Sunshine in government 

By Margo C. Pope, Columnist

St. Augustine Record 

I frequently tune into televised local government meetings to keep up live with the business of government in St. Augustine and St. Johns County. I still love the rhythm of those meetings I used to cover. I especially look forward to the public speakers at the beginning of the meeting because they bring an element of surprise in what they say.

It’s not as easy as it looks to stand up there in front of the decision makers to pitch your views that are likely contrary to theirs. Even frequent public speakers have told me, it’s a challenge each time. The regulars, who speak every chance they get, are seasoned in their delivery, aware of the time limits, and comfortable with the microphone. They wait their turn with people who likely may never do it again. Those one-timers at the mic have an issue of importance likely only to them and their neighbors! 

All public speakers hope their ideas and issues will gain traction in the room and beyond with the hidden audience watching from their living rooms or offices. The power of the airwaves extend their reach.

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Then, there are those in the audience. They don’t speak but they are listening and taking notes. Through a screen, I cannot see their expressions but I know from experience these are also messengers for others. Often, they write letters to newspapers. 

Some have blogs.

For years, St. Augustine residents read Saint Augustine Report, former Mayor George Gardner’s weekly internet article about city government, civic and neighborhood groups, and people to know. Gardner’s Report was insightful, persuasive, loved by those who shared his views, and not so, by his critics who read it to pick it apart. He died in 2021.

I applaud the speakers and the non-speakers at government meetings because they show up and those who write letters to the editor, or blogs to engage others to pay attention to government actions before and after the vote.

They are truly champions of open government, Sunshine Warriors. They are the people that Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was made for. 

We have Sen. J. Emory “Red” Cross of Gainesville, who died in 2005, to thank for his persistence in getting the Sunshine Law passed in 1967. Gov. Claude Kirk signed it into law July 12, 1967, as the new fiscal year began. It changed the business of government in our state forever.

Cross was a state representative when he initiated the effort in the late 1950s after two professors in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications cornered him. Horance G. (Buddy) Davis Jr., recalled Cross’s efforts in a 1998 Record article on the law’s 30th anniversary. It’s a story worth retelling.

At the time of his encounter with Davis and Hugh Cunningham, Cross had just finished speaking to the Gainesville Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi (SDX), later renamed the Society of Professional Journalists. Davis said he and Cunningham gave Cross the Society’s Quill magazine that included a model sunshine law. Florida must end secret meetings of government boards, was their message. Cross used the model law as the base of his bill because, as he said in my interview, no other state had such a law for him to use.

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Davis said Cross tried five times in 10 years to get the law passed. Every time it failed to get to the floor, Cross’s colleagues laughed, Davis recalled.

A federal court ruling on fair districts during that time helped Cross’s cause by ensuring fairer representation, especially for South Florida’s then-growing population. Cross said his Sunshine bill passed when “the people started voting instead of the pine trees.” It was a reference to the previous disproportionate number of lawmakers from then-less-populated and heavily forested North Florida districts.

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