Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sour Smell of Secrecy

A Palm Beach Post Editorial

Another misguided bill in Tallahassee seeks a major exemption from Florida's exemplary open-government laws.
Current law correctly lets elected officials meet privately to discuss tort litigation, such as a personal-injury claim, filed against a government. The proposed change would let local politicians and their attorneys meet in private to discuss lawsuits that haven't even been filed, an idea that would invite abuse.

Senate Bill 1510, sponsored by Minority Leader Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, would allow private meetings as soon as someone provided notification of an intent to file a tort claim. Now, a transcript of any closed-door litigation meeting becomes public once the litigation is concluded. Under Sen. Geller's proposal, what would happen if litigation is never filed? There's no trigger for releasing the record of closed-door meetings to discuss potential litigation.

"The bill really stinks in that there's no opportunity for public oversight," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. "As currently drafted, the bill violates the standard, and we would first ask for a veto" by Gov. Crist, who last month praised the state's public-access rules, which collectively are known as the Sunshine Law. "If he failed to veto, which I sort of doubt, then we would certainly consider a constitutional challenge in court."

Not surprisingly, given Mayor Lois Frankel's efforts to control information, West Palm Beach supports the proposed exemption. But she's hardly alone. The Florida League of Cities also favors the exemption, which would give public officials new excuses to conduct the public's business in secret. This bill never should get out of the Legislature. If it does, surely the governor who says repeatedly that the people are the boss wouldn't make it harder for the bosses to know what their employees are doing.