OUR POSITION: Overall, the Florida Legislature fared poorly when scored for its protection of the public’s right to information.
A majority of the people we elect to the state Legislature could care less if the public has easy access to information. When we say “information” we’re talking about, for example, facts about crime, healthcare, who is responsible for certain laws and what groups or lobbyists funnel donations to support a particular law.
Each year the Florida Society of News Editors publishes a Sunshine Scorecard that rates each state lawmaker on their voting record in support of open records. Compiling the report is not easy and is very time-consuming, but members of FSNE believe the public has a right to this information. Each voter should know if the person they elected cares if they have access to public records.
Our Legislature performed poorly this year. And that is not unusual. Every year it seems lawmakers want to try to squeeze every ounce of privacy they can out of what is actually one of the best examples of open government of any state in the nation.
We should be proud of past legislators who took pride in opening the books to voters and made an effort to put a stop to hiding behind closed doors.
The average grade for lawmakers this year was a C- with only five legislators earning a B or a B-.
Sarasota Republican Rep. Joe Gruters was one of those five who earned a B. Fellow Sarasota County Republican Rep. James Buchanan earned a C.
Charlotte County Republican Rep. Michael Grant got a C- which was the average score. Ben Albritton, a Republican senator who represents Charlotte and DeSoto counties, earned a D-.
In calculating the scorecard, legislators earned points for supporting a bill that gave more access to the public and had points taken away for voting for a law to make it more difficult to find information.
The scoring did not favor Republicans or Democrats. Bad scores crossed party lines.
Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar, earned a B and was among one of the top performers according to our Perspective editorial. She sponsored a bill that would require time estimates as to when a document would be ready when a person makes a public records request.
Rep. Ray Rodriguez, R-Estero, also earned a higher grade for filing a bill to prevent government agencies from suing those who make public records requests (which happened in Orlando when the city sued to deny a request for a 911 recordings of the Pulse shooting). Grant and Buchanan both voted in favor of this bill, which passed unanimously in the House but died in the Senate.
Gruters’ high score got a boost when he sponsored a bill to make sure agency contracts are available to the public and not exempt from public records laws.
Grant told a Sun reporter he “couldn’t care less” if he earned points for his votes on public records legislation and that he voted for what he felt was right and often for or against a larger bill that contained, as often happens, an amendment pertaining to public records. We can appreciate his commitment to doing what he believes is right.
We would not label Grant, Gruters and Buchanan as enemies of open records. We encourage them, and Albritton, to protect the people’s right to information. A good start next legislative session would be to revisit Marsy’s Law and define it for consistency. It should be made clear whose names are protected and whose names should be public. That would be a huge improvement to a law that is being molested by law enforcement across the state.