|NMU||FLORIDA||Freedom of Information||Nov 6, 2002|
Voters approve open records amendment
- A successful ballot initiative will make it harder to restrict access to government records and documents
Seventy-six percent of Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that will make it harder for lawmakers to grant exemptions to the state’s open-meetings and public-records laws.
Amendment 4 requires a two-thirds majority of the state legislature to pass any new exemptions to the state’s open record or open meeting laws.
“I’m really pleased we won by this overwhelmingly large margin. It reinforces the importance that citizens place on open government,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida based group that fights for greater public access to government openness.
Although Florida has one of the country’s best open government laws, lawmakers in recent years have chipped away at it, enacting more than 860 exemptions. While many exemptions were enacted in response to heightened security concerns in the post Sept. 11 period, many were unrelated to security concerns.
According to one report by the St. Petersburg Times, the 2001 Legislature voted to exempt adverse incident reports submitted by nursing homes, in spite of reported horror stories “such as that of a woman attacked by ants in her nursing home bed.”
“One of the few positive things in state government here is that our open records laws are quite strong, but every year the legislature tries some sneaky way to clip away at this,” said Robert Friedman, deputy editor at the Times.
Friedman added that public involvement in the access debate mushroomed when the government tried to “sneak into law” a piece that would have allowed untreated sewage water to be pumped into a state aquifer.
This “really got the public involved in the openness issue,” Friedman said, adding that the “stealthy way” in which the government tried to pass this law contributed to the reaction.
The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors coordinated a statewide “Sunshine Sunday” in mid-March. Newspapers printed editorials condemning the large number of exemptions passed by the legislature with relatively little debate.
“After this we saw real and true debate,” Petersen said.
“When legislators say it’s just whiny advocates who want this and the public does not care about these issues, we can tell them they’re wrong. The public really cares and here’s the proof.”
(Constitutional Amendment 4) — GS
© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press