FL lawmakers promote secrecy, while citizens remain in the dark

February 25, 2020 7:00 am
Florida Capitol

The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo, Colin Hackley

Some Florida legislators want more privacy.  They’d like to live secretly, in houses where no one can find them.

Yes, as dumb as this sounds, this has become an actual bill in the Florida Legislature.

The Senate sponsor is Republican Kelli Stargel, who represents parts of Lake and Polk counties. She already lives at a secret address because she’s married to a former legislator who is now a judge in Polk County.

I can see some reason to make the home addresses of judges exempt from Florida’s public records law, just in case some convicted criminal gets out of prison and wants to pay a visit.

But state legislators? Hardly.

They’re supposed to live within the confines of their legislative districts and most of them are so little known that the average criminal would never find them. But this is an idea that could catch on.

Elsewhere in the world of state government secrecy, Rhode Island legislators are toying with a law to tint their windshields so they can hide from unhappy residents.

Rhode Island law prohibits vehicle owners from tinting their car windows, much like the laws of many other states, including Florida.

But Rhode Island Democrat Anastasia P. Williams has introduced a bill that would carve out an exemption for state lawmakers, police officers, fire fighters and state judges, so they could cruise the streets behind tinted glass.

I wonder what other laws could pass to protect the poor dears serving in state legislatures?

How about a statute allowing lawmakers to escape reporting on the campaign contributions they receive?

Or a statute to let lawmakers accept big money and gifts from lobbyists, without disclosing those gifts to the public?

Seriously, public officials who are entrusted with making the laws that govern our lives and collect taxes from us should learn to live with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine laws.

We should certainly be able to verify where lawmakers live in a system that requires legislators to live in certain districts. We should also be able to know a little bit about what they own: businesses, houses, vehicles and property.

More often than you might expect we find public officials who are supposed to live in certain districts living somewhere else. That’s not fair to voters in the district where they are supposed to be.  And there is no way a public official can honestly represent one district and live in another.

We expect some information to remain confidential.  There is a reason for secrecy in areas such as names of rape victims and drug informants, and personal medical records.

But there are good reasons for financial disclosure among public officials and open campaign finance records and deeds and mortgages which are routinely filed in county courthouses.

These laws have helped make Florida’s open government famous.

There’s also good reason to select university presidents in the sunlight. Every year someone introduces a bill that would allow secret searches for public university presidents.

Bill sponsors often insist we could find the “best and brightest’’ presidents if only we did it in secret. That’s an insult to the people who are serving in those jobs now or in the past.

I would suggest that most of the selections made in public have been good presidents who have advanced education and the reputations of our public universities in Florida.

Ok, suppose we did make the selection in secret. Just how well do you think a person selected in secret could operate in a state that prizes open meetings and open records? Not at all, I would suggest.

Public officials should avoid putting our citizens in the dark.

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.