On the heels of high-profile wins, a government transparency effort seeks to expand its reach

Sarasota-based Florida Center for Government Accountability launches 'Defenders of Democracy' campaign.

Ghost candidates, migrant flights’ secrecy, and concealed COVID-19 data are just a few of the battles that a government transparency effort has undertaken in its first two years of existence.

The Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) can claim its work inspired legislation, handed a legal defeat to the attempts of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to keep information under wraps and even garnered a mention on the legendary TV news show, “60 Minutes.”

But there’s so much more to do, says Barbara Petersen, the FLCGA’s executive director. The organization’s core mission is to give the Sunshine Law, the state’s open records law, more muscle through suing for public records, commissioning news stories, and acting as a resource for citizens who need help drafting public information requests.

And that has kept the organization’s inbox busier with more than it can handle on its current budget, so the FLCGA is launching a “Defenders of Democracy” campaign to raise $80,000 with an eye on supporting more independent journalism. In 2022, the organization reported about $135,000 in donations, according to its 990 form nonprofits are required to submit.

“The more we report, the more tips we get, which is very encouraging,” Petersen said. “It’s just amazing what we’ve been able to do, and our biggest problem, in fact — and it’s something I was sort of shocked by, frankly — is finding freelance reporters.”

The FLCGA has filed eight public records lawsuits and published more than a dozen articles in its publication, the Florida Trident, as well as assisted news organizations such as the Miami Herald and the Orlando Sentinel in quests for public records involving migrant flights and ghost candidates.

Former Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, now running for state Senate, enlisted FLCGA’s help when the state refused his request for COVID-19 data, telling him it was protected from disclosure because of patient privacy laws. This happened even though such detail had been in previous state COVID-19 reports.

An appellate court required the state Health Department to turn over the data and a settlement was reached last month that requires the state to pay more than $152,000 in legal fees.

Smith has high praise for what FLCGA was able to accomplish.

“An open government, more transparent and accountable to the people it serves, is a better government,” Smith texted Florida Politics. “That’s why the Center’s work is more important now than ever as the state continues every effort to weaken the Florida Sunshine Law. Without FLCGA’s support, I could not have successfully won the two-year legal battle to hold the DeSantis administration accountable for their unlawful efforts to hide public health data during the COVID-19 pandemic. This organization has been and will continue to be at the forefront of protecting the public’s constitutional right to know.”

The FLCGA also put a reporter on a story about a relatively obscure water utility district, the North Springs Improvement District (NSID). The story, which found the district manager profiting from the agency he ran, prompted Rep. Dan Daley to initiate a state audit into the agency’s dealings. The audit recently found that the entity that provides water to 40,000 residents was not following state law when it came to awarding contracts and bidding procedures.

“We had been hearing rumblings about mismanagement and other concerns at NSID for some time, but FLCGA helped shine a light where few others were willing to do so,” Daley said. “Their reporting was part of what led to me pushing for an internal audit by the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee. That report did find policies and actions that were contrary to state law.” 

The improvement district’s new board member, Anthony Avello, pledged the NSID will be doing better in the future.

More battles lie ahead for the FLCGA, Petersen said. The organization has a suit against New College of Florida for failing to comply with public records law. And Petersen said she’s dismayed to see a recent court ruling that lawmakers have “legislative privilege” and Attorney General Ashley Moody’s brief that the Governor has “executive privilege” that allows him to decide what records involving him are open to scrutiny.

“There’s so much distrust of government and government actors right now,” Petersen said. “And some of that distrust is well placed when we have a Governor who wants to hide everything he does … 

“It’s really an issue that comes to credibility and accountability,” she added.

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected].


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