Partly Cloudy Government Needn't Dim News Delivery
Around the State
Almost 40 years ago I covered a meeting of the National League of Cities in Miami and was amused by the astonished, and angry, reactions from delegates from other states when they were briefed on Florida's Government in the Sunshine laws.
Politicians and bureaucrats from out of state could not conceive of the public being entitled to know what they were doing (often behind closed doors).
Florida's law then was less than a decade old and had come about after a group of reporters in the state capital balked at leaving a public meeting politicians wanted to close.
But anything can be overdone.
Two politicians can hardly bump into each other in a Capitol hallway without being required to post a notice of their meeting, and no one dare say anything of any importance in an email because reporters get their “news” these days by reading other people's mail.
Overly stringent sunshine and financial disclosure laws probably keep a lot of the best and brightest from seeking public office, but are no deterrent to those seeking wealth and power they could not achieve in the private sector.
Because the sunshine laws – actually two, dealing with meetings and records – virtually opened everything, occasionally the Legislature tries to temper them somewhat, usually with good reason.
But each effort is met with fury by the media and there is annually a massive lobbying effort intended to intimidate legislators who would try.
It is called Sunshine Week, and it was held last week.
Apparently no one is supposed to notice the irony of the media, which routinely portrays lobbyists as being evil incarnate, having its own lobbyists. News flash: they also desperately seek profit, while sneering at others who do the same.
The media itself can be considered a lobby. Its opinion pages – and often news columns – seek to influence public policy.
During the well-orchestrated Sunshine Week, there is a lot of pompous editorializing about the people's right to know, but behind all the self-righteousness is a bit of self-serving as well.
The question is, how far do you go? Since people get mail at home, and also phone calls, are “the people” entitled to open the snail mail of politicians and have their calls recorded?
Even politicians need to confer among themselves. Like all of us, they ask stupid questions sometimes and they won't ask them in a public meeting when they know it will be headlined. The problem is, stupid questions often need to be asked.
Bringing government to a standstill or reducing it to a stage show won't improve public policy.
Before sunshine mania, I covered the police beat and was free to roam police headquarters. If I dropped in on a casual gathering and the conversation died, I left. It was easy enough to corner one of the participants later and find out what had transpired.
Functional government, sufficient transparency and fair reporting can co-exist.
Lloyd Brown was in the newspaper business nearly 50 years, beginning as a copy boy and retiring as editorial page editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. After retirement he served as speech writer for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.