The Department of Children and Families (DCF) is not the worst offender in Florida’s never-ending War on Open Government.
It just gets caught in the act more often than fellow offenders at the state, county and municipal levels.
That’s because DCF is one of the few agencies left which ever has to contend with watchdog journalism.
DCF chieftains, lawyers and flacks are well-acquainted with the well-oiled BS detector of the Miami Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller, a veteran investigative reporter who knows the difference between transparency, and transparent nonsense.
But they keep trying to buffalo her, anyway.
The latest example involves the case of Sophia Hines. She’s currently residing in the Broward County jail, charged with suffocating her infant son and toddler daughter. Hines, a resident of Pennsylvania, had been receiving services from that state’s child welfare authorities.
Marbin Miller “cobbled together” some of the sad story of how Hines ended up in Florida and the children ended up dead, but only after days of being diddled by DCF while its lawyers tried and failed to come up with a good excuse to keep secrets on Pennsylvania’s behalf.
“Though child protection records remain sealed in Pennsylvania, they are considered public record in Florida when a youngster dies from abuse or neglect,” Marbin Miller reports in her June 25 front-page story. “For about two weeks, the Florida Department of Children & Families sought to shield records of the Hines children from disclosure, saying Pennsylvania’s confidentiality extended to Florida, a claim First Amendment lawyers disputed. DCF ultimately relented, and released all of the records to the Herald Friday.”
State agencies employ an army of well-paid lawyers and “communications professionals” to play public records keep-away. They do it — with our money — because they can.
It’s been decades since Florida had an elected statewide official who paid much more than lip service to open government.
In 1992, Florida voters passed, by an 83 percent majority, Amendment 24 to Article 1 of the state constitution. Nicknamed the Sunshine Amendment, it was supposed to drench existing open government laws in a thick coat of permanent sunlight.
Almost immediately, the Legislature began throwing shade and thumbing its nose at voters.
The First Amendment Foundation, which has the depressing task of keeping track, reports that since 1995, the Legislature has passed 240 bills creating exemptions to our open government laws.
The contempt for open government is entirely bipartisan; more than half those bills were approved unanimously by both Legislative chambers. The Senate, which loves to call itself the more “deliberative” chamber, has approved exemptions unanimously 151 times.
Florida’s current attorney general, Pam Bondi, spends a lot of public money in court and a lot of time on cable news “defending” gun rights and gay marriage bans. She insists she’s just doing her job, protecting Florida’s Constitution and guarding against “federal overreach.”
Bondi is far less aggressive when it comes to protecting Florida’s constitutional right of access to public records and meetings. Like most of her recent predecessors, Democrat and Republican alike, Bondi has treated the Sunshine Amendment as an unloved, unwanted poor relation. Think Catelyn Stark and Jon Snow.
In the wake of the June 12 mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, reporters requested documents about the killer and the police response — which are plainly public record under Florida law.
Bondi said nothing and did nothing, as federal and local officials told the press to pound sand.
On June 15, Florida Politics’ reporter Jim Rosica asked Bondi for an explanation. She has yet to answer, perhaps because there is no principled answer to be given by an attorney general who claims to be a defender of Florida’s faith in Florida’s Constitution.
Florence Beth Snyder is a Tallahassee-based lawyer and consultant.