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Daniel Tilson: Ain’t no sunshine: Make our legislators clean the mud off Florida government ‘transparency’

So we’ve got this Sunshine Law in Florida. It’s supposed to be all about “open” government decision-making and freedom of information, including unrestricted access to public records.

As many of us now know more than ever before, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet have made a farce of the law. And they’ve had plenty of help from their Republican Party of Florida colleagues in the Legislature.

The much-maligned process followed by Team Scott to force Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) chief Gerald Bailey to resign on Dec. 16 appears likely to have broken the law, due to staff aides carrying out official business between one another, out of the public eye. Oh yeah, according to Cabinet members Jeff Atwater, Pam Bondi and Adam Putnam, they were left in the dark, too.

Funny how wearing blinders will do that to even the most highly placed and obedient party loyalists.

More than 10,000 citizen petitions demanding an independent investigation have since been gathered by the state’s leading public interest advocacy organization, Progress Florida, and were delivered this week to State Attorney Willie Meggs in Tallahassee. The hope is that in lieu of any “smoking gun” in the case yet, the weight of public opinion will compel Meggs to reverse his earlier decision not to investigate.

Progress Florida spokesperson Damien Filer explained:

“There are two extremely different versions of this story. One is from the Governor’s Office, and the other is from former commissioner Bailey. If we had access to those records, we’d be able to… all of us… know the truth.”

Of course, once this latest example of Team Scott’s business-as-usual BS unexpectedly blew up into a major scandal, everyone involved — especially the Cabinet members — suddenly and publicly found religion … well, transparency that is, publicly calling for more and better of it, thank you very much.

But all this begs the question of why “we the people” allow the promise of government “in the sunshine” to remain miserably clouded and willfully broken. Even the most politically disengaged among us understand that corporate-government deals — from tax “incentives” and loopholes to rollback of regulations — are formulated in private, with campaign contributions and other quid-pro-quos thick in the air. Why, it’s almost as if the sliminess is meant to fuel disengagement, but that’s a story for another day.

The slimy lack of transparency in the FDLE case is the tip of an iceberg tearing a hole in the Titanic that is our Florida government. Rarely has the “rearranging the deck chairs” line been more appropriate than in describing the lame efforts of Scott, the Cabinet and the Republican Party of Florida to clean up the mess.

Case in point: This gang that can’t legislate or shoot straight launched a website called Project Sunburst in 2012, purportedly to facilitate open government. As the Sun Sentinel wrote in an editorial just two days before Bailey was forced out:

“But what began as a promise of transparency proved to be a sham as press disclosures revealed the governor and his staff supposedly rarely used emails. In the end, Project Sunburst collected mostly mundane matters, like routine government reports, news releases and meeting notices.”

Only enormous public pressure from Republicans, Democrats and independents who share a nonpartisan belief in genuinely open government will force the Florida Legislature to clean the mud off their windows.

While we wait for results of a lawsuit to clarify if our government is just plain bad, or criminally bad, we owe it to ourselves and each other to give legislators hell before their session starts March 3, demanding an FDLE investigation, plus public hearings shedding light on the profound failures of our Sunshine Law.

If not now, when?

Daniel Tilson has a Boca Raton-based communications firm called Full Cup Media, specializing in online video and written content for non-profits, political candidates and organizations, and small businesses. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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