Government in the Sunshine

Nearly five-dozen bills have been filed in Florida this year restricting the public's access to certain records. That number is double what had been filed this time last year.

Until the late 1960's, many local governments in Florida met in secret, but as early as 1960 then state Sen. Sam Gibbons tried to make a change.

"You can't have a democratic society by government of the people, by consent of the governed if the governed don't know what's really going on," says Gibbons.

After a decade-long fight, the outcome was one of the best public records laws in the country. How much electricity does the home you're looking at use? What were the taxes on the property you want to buy its information? Thanks to Gibbons and others that is easily available, but state lawmakers have filed 59 bills this year to restrict what records you can see.

The Senate president says some restrictions are necessary.

"What's complicated it a lot is the home security issues as to what should remain private information, and what shouldn't," says Sen. Jim King, Senate President.

But public records advocates are questioning why one of the bills would keep pawn shop firearm records from the public, especially in a post 9/11 world.

"Who was what firearms, and what firearms are being transferred through pawn shops is a critical tool to law enforcement agencies. To close access to that is quite frightening to me, it's a real public safety issue," says Barbara Peterson of the First Amendment Foundation.

In 2002 voters did approve a constitutional amendment making it harder to exempt new records from public view, but the amendment has not deterred lawmakers from trying.

Editorial writers across the state will be weighing in on the issue of open government this weekend. It's part of the "Sunshine Sunday" campaign by many of the state's leading newspapers.


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