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Q&A with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Winter 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 13. In January, Scott Albright asked Florida…

From the Winter 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 13.

In January, Scott Albright asked Florida Gov. Charlie Crist about his efforts to improve open government. Below is an edited transcript of the governor’s e-mail response.

Q: What was the inspiration for the Open Government Bill of Rights in addition to the public testimony received at the August 2007 meetings held by the Commission for Open Government Reform?

A: The Bill of Rights was a direct result of public testimony at the August Commission on Open Government Reform.

I often hear from citizens when I travel throughout the state, and they also call and write to our office seeking assistance with public record requests and open meetings.

Government’s business is public service, and as public servants, we work for the people of Florida. Florida’s Sunshine Law allows Floridians to observe the democratic process and participate in it.

Q: Is Florida, to your knowledge, the first state to put forth an Open Government Bill of Rights? Are there any other examples of similar state executive orders or statutes that served as a model for the order you signed in this instance?

A: To my knowledge Florida is a leader by adopting a Bill of Rights. Testimony from citizens indicates that some people have experienced an unwillingness and lack of respect when they have tried to have open access to government.

Q: What is the practical purpose of the Bill of Rights and are any of its provisions (particularly those pertaining to "respect, courtesy, and professionalism") enforceable in any way? How do you respond to people that believe the bill is simply empty political rhetoric?

A: The Bill of Rights is a tangible way to educate the public about their rights and to reinforce the responsibilities of agency and agency employees.

Since I established the Bill of Rights for agencies under my purview, we have been contacted by other state and local government agencies wanting to follow suit.

The Bill of Rights is enforceable by my administration and is also backed by our Constitution and Florida’s strong open meeting and public record laws.

Q: It certainly appears that open government has been a priority for your administration, given the emphasis on the issue in your gubernatorial campaign and during your first year as governor. Why is this issue important to you, and how did it become that way for you personally?

A: President Abraham Lincoln said, "Government [is] of the people, by the people, [and] for the people." His words remind us that the people of Florida are our boss and hold us accountable for how we serve them.

Transparency in government is vital to our democracy, which is why maintaining open and transparent government continues to be one of my top priorities.

In just over one year since its creation, the Office of Open Government has opened the window into Florida’s government processes even wider.

Q: In a more historical sense, Florida has a reputation, as a state, for having some of the best open government laws in the nation, both through its constitutional provisions and statutes. What is it about Florida, as opposed perhaps to other states, that has fostered this attention to this issue?

A: The State of Florida has a long history of providing public access to the records and government meetings.

This openness is the key to establishing and maintaining the people’s trust and confidence in their government and its ability to effectively serve its citizens.

During this past year we have had strong citizen participation in making our government a leader in open government.

Q: What would you say to other governors or state legislators who may not see open government as a priority issue?

A: It is important to remember that in order for our citizens to participate in the democratic process, they must have access to information.

One of the basic principles of our democracy is that government is accountable to the citizens it serves.

Open and transparent government is our responsibility as public servants.

Q: What are the biggest threats to open government in this post-9/11 age that you have encountered and otherwise foresee?

A: We learned from 9/11 the need for balance when it comes to information which could endanger our physical safety. We must also keep in mind our duty to protect our people.