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Nancy Smith

In a Public Records Showdown, Pam Bondi Will Be the One Wearing the White Hat

June 19, 2011 - 6:00pm

In this country, the people own the government. Its ours. Argument over.

Or should be.

But something scary is happening in Florida, a state with one of the longest and proudest traditions of open government and public records in the United States.

Some offices in the state capital believe the government belongs not to the people, but to themselves -- as if they elected themselves and needn't follow either the spirit or the letter of the laws that govern the office they represent. It's not OK to sit until June on a public records request made in April.

I admit, I'm talking specifically about the governor's office now.

I fear the clash between the Capitol press corps and the governor's office -- and it's an issue getting hotter than Friday night at Clyde's -- inevitably will wind up in the office of Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Which is OK with me. First Amendment issues couldn't go to a better arbiter.

The first time I ever heard Bondi speak, I was at the pre-session Associated Press legislative planning session. The AP planning meet is a bigger deal than it sounds -- a tradition really -- an opportunity to hear top lawmakers discuss their goals for the session, and for the press corps to fire questions at will.

Most officials who speak at the AP meeting tip their cap to public records and open government, working in a one-liner and trying to mean it because it's the right venue. But for reporters, the public records hosanna is like standing in line at Disney's "It's a Small World," listening to the same song play over and over. You just want it to go away.

This year was different. Along came Pam Bondi. I have to tell you, I was impressed. And so was Tallahassee corporate and First Amendment attorney Florence Snyder, who beat me to writing it in a column: "... It was a 'stop the presses' moment when Attorney General Pam Bondi busted out of the lip-service zone and cut out the middlemen between the press and two of her most powerful lieutenants," she wrote.

"Referring to statewide prosecutor Nick Cox and pill mill point man David Aronberg, Bondi told journalists to call them directly for background on developing issues or a quote for a breaking news story. ... She iced the cake with a reminder that her door is always open to reporters on deadline."

As Snyder reported, "Bondi, Cox and Aronberg, are seasoned trial lawyers. They have a distinguished track record of explaining difficult concepts to judges and juries. Journalists are not nearly as rough a crowd."

Bondi did one more thing that sent her soaring to the top of my list. She hired attorney Pat Gleason, a veteran student of Florida's public records and open government laws. Bondi and Gleason make a formidable team -- Bondi with her experience handling media relations for the Hillsborough state attorney's office, and Gleason with her three decades of service to open government issues.

In 2007 Gleason wrote an article for a Florida Bar publication criticizing a proposal for closed-door meetings when lawyers discuss legal matters.

Shouldnt the people have a right to expect that closed meetings held to discuss how to spend their money are limited and restricted in scope? she wrote.
Gleason truly believes that government is more accountable and effective when it is open to citizens. The public," she said in an interview at the time, "should be welcome at the door because they make government do a better job."

At some point no doubt, the attorney general's office will be asked to intercede in some public records issue between the media and the governor's office. Delays remain long. The money charged for producing records -- and records these days are almost exclusively recorded and stored electronically -- is colossally, prohibitively expensive.

As Gleason and Bondi can attest, transparency in government is paramount. If getting and paying for public records is like pulling teeth for the media, imagine how difficult it is for the ordinary citizen. There has to be a better way. An appointed panel to study cost and how much time is considered "reasonable" for records retrieval? Is this a possibility? Is this an issue appropriate for Florida's chief legal officer? I think Bondi and her team would do a great job leading the way.

This article is an opinion column: Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.
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