Political Leaders Honor Open Government
Around the State
Lawmakers and journalists came together Monday to celebrate citizen access to government against a backdrop of calls for greater transparency in state lawmaking.
The First Amendment Foundation's luncheon on Monday attracted a healthy turnout of political leaders, including most members of the House and Senate leadership, as well as journalists. But, notably absent were Gov. Charlie Crist, who is a two-time winner of the foundation's Pete Weitzel Friend of the First Amendment Award, and Attorney General Bill McCollum, a leading Republican candidate for governor.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp read a proclamation from Crist honoring National Freedom of Information Day and Sunshine Week, both of which celebrate the importance of open government.
“The job of the press has never been more important than it is today in holding government accountable,” Kottkamp said.
The keynote speakers were Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and CFO Alex Sink, a Democrat, both of whom are candidates for governor.
Sink said open government is an important issue for most Floridians and transparency is needed to ensure good government. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant and something we’re very much in need of in Tallahassee,” she said.
Saying that she entered government with "a citizen's mentality" because she'd never held elected office before, Sink talked about the importance of open government from that perspective. She expressed support for requiring the state's open meeting laws to be applied to state lawmakers, who at present are allowed to meet in private to discuss government business. In contrast, the state's Open Government Act prohibits two or more local government officials from ever meeting in private on public business.
Sink said, in her term as CFO, she has backed several actions to make government more open to citizens. She pointed to sites being run in her office, including Florida’s Checkbook, Sunshine Spending and Florida’s Financials, that inform citizens of what state government is doing with taxpayers’ money. Sink said that her department had an attorney on staff who worked on open government issues and hoped that other departments would follow her example.
Dockery outlined bils she is currently sponsoring in the Senate to promote open government. One would force a legislator to recuse himself from lobbying and voting on a bill if the lawmaker or a family member would somehow benefit.
Dockery said that voters are angry and feel government fails to pay attention to them. She said that open government is one way to address the problem. “We should all accept and embrace open government to its fullest,” she said.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said all of Dockery’s ideas are well-considered but that the measures may change in the legislative process.
The luncheon also quietly drew attention to changes in the news industry itself. Staff cutbacks and downsizing of state newspaper bureaus have caused a corresponding drop in financial support for the foundation, which is largely a stepchild of Florida newspapers and broadcast outlets.
On the upside, there has been an expansion of online journalism, giving readers the freedom of choice.
"More people are getting access to the news through the Internet," said Barbara Petersen, president of the foundation. "They're being exposed to a variety of different outlets.”
Petersen believes "open government is not a partisan issue” and the foundation has honored both Democrats and Republicans with awards over the years.
She pointed out that members of both parties work together in Florida for the cause of transparency. “Florida sets the tone for open government across the nation,” she said.