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Columns

Committing to WIN the War Against Florida's Public Records Law

June 16, 2016 - 6:00am

(Editor's Note: This is the acceptance address of Carol Marbin Miller, Miami Herald senior investigative reporter, delivered June 9  in Lake Mary, after she had been presented with the 2016 Paul Hansell Award for Distinguished Achievement in Florida Journalism. The Hansell is the highest award the Florida Society of News Editors gives. Marbin Miller won for a body of work, including "Bitter Pill," on how Florida rations care to children in need. What she said to Florida's editors and reporters hits home with arresting clarity this week. Read on:)

I’d like to talk for a moment about the troubles that have befallen Florida’s public-records law. Next to great editors, it’s the most important of the tools in our tool box.

We used to take it for granted. We considered it our birthright. And why not? Florida’s first public-records law was passed in 1909 and kept getting stronger with each passing decade. A voter referendum enshrining the law in the state Constitution, passed by an overwhelming majority in 1992.

Without Florida’s public-records law, my friends at the Tampa Bay Times would not have been able to make all of us proud with two Pulitzer Prizes this year, and my friend and colleague Mike Sallah would not have been a finalist for his tremendous work on how a police chief parlayed seizure laws into a private piggy bank.

The work I did speaking for frail and medically complex children would have been impossible, as well, and very nearly was -- as one state agency initially charged the Herald $20,000 for emails that were so easily produced we later obtained them for nothing.

The people, agencies and departments we all cover know this is our Achilles heel. We cannot hold public officials accountable -- we cannot do our jobs -- without access to the records of how they do their jobs.

But the threat to this type of reporting has never been more acute, and it is a threat we all have fertilized with our complacency.

Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation tells me that, since 1995, the Florida Legislature has passed 240 bills creating exemptions to our open-government laws and, to date, there are 1,119 discreet exceptions to our constitutional right of access.

In 2014 alone, lawmakers passed 22 separate bills -- 22 more cloaks against the Sunshine.

A 2001 exemption forbids the release of autopsy photos, a provision that has throttled government oversight of untold institutions.

Even as lawmakers were deliberating the exemption, an inmate at Florida State Prison died. The medical examiner reported he died of heart failure. Autopsy photos showed boot prints on his chest. A reasonable person might conclude that his heart stopped while he was being stomped to death.

This year, lawmakers expanded the definition of a trade secret to include financial information -- which, in the hands of a bad judge, has the potential to shroud the details of government contracts, the very lifeblood of our pay-to-play politics.

And if you think secrecy is a partisan value, think again. More than half of those bills, 128, were approved unanimously by both legislative chambers. The Senate, hailed as the more “deliberative” chamber, has approved exemptions unanimously 151 times.

Like children hungering for love, we seek affection again and again from lawmakers who have proven they are not our friends. For Sunshine Week, we write stories about the heroes of transparency, some of whom have done very un-transparent things. We hope that, when the chips are down, the most powerful people in Florida will act out of character -- and against their self-interest -- by passing laws that nurture openness.

We should not expect the current administration -- or any administration -- to have an epiphany and let the sunshine in.

Sometimes they ignore you, hoping you’ll forget. Sometimes they engage in price gouging. A source once described sitting in agency meetings where the leadership openly discussed how steep the invoice should be to discourage further interest. Sometimes they make up exemptions, reckoning you don’t know any better. Much of the time, they just dare you to sue ’em.

They know that the big newspapers can’t afford to do that very often, and the small ones can’t afford to do it at all.

There’s a war on Chapter 119 [Florida’s Public Records law] and, right now, we’re losing. How do we turn things around?

For starters, we must stop treating Government in the Sunshine as if it were inside baseball. It’s not. It’s at the very core of the people’s business.

The public has a right to know everything the government does, and every dollar the government spends, to thwart us in our efforts to find and report the news. It’s an affront to the citizens and taxpayers we serve, and we should name names every time it happens.

Withholding public records should be the sixth “W.” It is every bit as important to readers as who, what, when, where and why.

We must do more such reporting. We must sustain Sunshine Sunday on the other 364 days of the year. Every beat, every story, every day.

I want to suggest, too, that we have a serious conversation among ourselves and with the public about going back to the voters to ask them to re-up and double down with a Sunshine Amendment that speaks to the needs of a 21st-century Florida.

For too long, we have placed too little faith in the good citizens of Florida — and too much faith in the lawmakers who, quite often, benefit the most from our silence.

The people of Florida, our readers, have demonstrated again and again that they do not want to be governed in darkness. Given the opportunity, they would absolutely support strong medicine for that Achilles heel of ours.

We also need to nurture and protect our First Amendment warriors Barbara Petersen and Pat Gleason. Is there a reporter or editor in this room who has not benefitted from their wise counsel?

But two people can’t carry the load for 20 million Floridians.

As leaders of the only profession explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution, you — all of you — are uniquely qualified to lead this charge. We are the heirs to the First Amendment.

And we buy ink by the barrel.

Carol Marbin Miller began covering social welfare programs in Florida, including the Department of Children & Families (DCF) in the 1990s. She was initially at the St. Petersburg Times, and continued on that beat with The Miami Herald starting in 2000. She has reported extensively on Florida's child welfare system and the hundreds of child victims whose deaths occurred after their families had been known to the state -- as well as the state's juvenile justice system, programs for people with disabilities, mental health, and elder care. Her landmark 2014 series, “Innocents Lost,” reported and written with Audra D.S. Burch, chronicled the deaths of 477 children, many of them needless, in the care of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Comments

Gee, SSN . . . . . . . . . which party was it that passed the Sunshine Law (i.e. Democrats) . . . . . . and which party is it that keeps trying to gut it year after year after year in death by a thousand cuts (i.e. GOP) . . . . . . . . . Gee, and which party's Presidential candidate is banning selected members of the press, like the Washington Post, from his gatherings in a direct slap at the First Amendment (i.e. Donald J. Trump, in his best Nixonian "enemies list" copycat mode) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . sunshine in government . . . . . . . . . apparently, an anathema to today's GOP and its Presidential candidate . . . . . . . . PATHETIC . . . .

There is a bigger tragedy at DCF automatically assumes the wife is the best placement of a child. Even though a wife was mentally ill as diagnosed by three psychologists. At the age of 5, the wife was dating a pedophile and child was fondle and DCF allowed the mother to maintain contact. No of individuals for DCF meet the qualifications for Job. Later father had to report 3 medically neglect issues by mother DCF stated they did not concern about the medical safety of this child. Case is now in Federal Court http://saynotopas.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Federal-Lawsuit-William-Todd-Overcash.pdf

Bravo, very well said. If you think our leaders have our best interests in mind, you are fooling yourself. They are offering services to the highest bidders, and they don't even try to hide it. Most sheep just accept it and go about their way. Nothing can prevent something wrong from occurring until someone refuses to accept it as ok. You must continue to publicize wrong doing and corruption. At the end of the day, what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong.

idiotic to believe reporters can't do their jobs without sunshine laws. It's just lazy reporters who want to sit at their desks and peck out gotcha stories as they sift through private emails and take quotes out of context. The current law is so pervasive that government officials don't even use email anymore. Nobody wants private conversations made public, and it doesn't make them corrupt to feel that way. Get off your asses and get some sources, like reporters used to do in the old days.

Ah yes, in that way lies protection for corruption --> "Nobody wants private conversations made public" . . . . . . . . especially when politicians and special interests are passing large amounts of money privately between themselves . . . . . . . naïve and absolutely . . . . . PATHETIC . . .

Keep up the great work...

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