It’s probably safe to say Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, didn’t see this one coming.
Petersen and the foundation champion the public’s right to know what government is doing in Florida. Their vigorous pursuit of open records laws and their partnership and support of the media when a government agency, at any level, is suspected of failing to follow the state’s Sunshine Law rarely wins them friends in high places.
That is why a Senate bill that would reward attorneys who pursue suits against governments suspected of Sunshine Law offenses is somewhat surprising — but welcome.
The proposal, SB1648, would reward attorneys “reasonable” costs for each count they prevail in on any particular suit. Even if the attorney loses the overall case, if a judge rules the defendant violated any form of the law, the attorney would be paid.
The bill, which unanimously passed through a Senate committee recently, would also compensate an attorney for time spent negotiating fees — something they do not get paid for now.
The person pushing the bill is Senate President Don Gaetz.
Some have accused Gaetz of trying to boost the income of his son, Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who makes a good portion of his living pursuing Sunshine law offenders.
Father and son have both been tight-lipped about the allegations of family support, but the good that could come out of the law should negate any suspected favoritism.
There have been 200 public records lawsuits filed in Florida in the last seven years.
While that may seem like a goodly number, when you consider how many state departments, county governments and city governments we have, the number is actually low. Florida has one of the best Sunshine laws in the nation and strict adherence to its guidelines make it difficult to conduct any business out of the public’s view. Still, we do not doubt that all too often a couple of key people on boards, councils, commissions, etc. talk to each other about a key vote or strategy. And, as innocent as it may seem sometimes, doing so outside the public arena is a violation of the law.
We support any bill that would make it more attractive to pursue such indiscretions.
The bad news is that, despite a couple of key allies, the overall mood of the House to partner on such legislation is not encouraging. Rep. Dave Hood, R-Daytona Beach, has been able to get a companion bill through a House committee but many predict it will go nowhere when it is proposed before the full membership.
While sometimes Sunshine laws are held up as a tool to help the media do its job, they are the foundation of good government. They force all government agencies to be open with the public about new laws that will impact their daily lives and about how they spend the public’s money.
Any law that will put more bite in Florida’s pursuit of open government is a good law.