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Florida Coalition Calls for Action on Ethics Reform, Open Government

On April 16th, a coalition of groups, including Integrity Florida, the First Amendment Foundation,  Common Cause Florida, the Citizens Awareness Foundation and The Tea Party Network held a press conference to call for the House to take action on ethics reform (SB 846) and open government (SB 1648HB 1151) bills that were stalled in the Florida Legislature.

Since this press conference Ethics Reform Proposal SB 846 was passed by the Florida House State Affairs Committee.

“Integrity Florida applauds our lawmakers for continuing to strengthen our state’s ethics laws,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida. “For the second year in a row, the legislature is advancing anti-corruption measures to improve public trust in government. While more work will be needed in the future to take on corruption, lawmakers are moving in the right direction.”

[youtube]http://youtu.be/QZEy1tLV2TU[/youtube]

 

SB 846, as amended by the House State Affairs Committee, would do the following:

  • Allows the Florida Commission on Ethics to independently begin investigations when officials fail to file financial disclosure reports;
  • Requires lobbyist disclosure at the state’s water management districts;
  • Requires ethics training for elected city officials; and
  • Applies some of the state’s ethics code to Enterprise Florida and Citizens Property Insurance.

Florida’s counties have a mixed record on transparency

How transparent is your county? Did you know that only 47 of 67 of Florida’s counties post their budget online? Less than half post current audit information on their website. Only three counties disclose if they belong to a government sector lobbying association.

Sunshine Review is dedicated to “bringing state and local government to light”. A government that is transparent is key to understanding how it functions and spends taxpayer money in the public good. Florida’s 67 counties have a mixed record.

Florida has 67 counties. In 1968, Florida voters adopted a constitutional amendment that grants local voters the power to adopt charters to govern their counties. Charters are formal written documents that confer powers, duties, or privileges on the county. They resemble state or federal constitutions and they must be approved by the county’s voters.

As of January 2009, 20 counties in Florida have adopted charter status. Taken together, these counties include more than 75 percent of Florida’s residents.

According to Sunshine Review:

  • 47 of the 67 counties posted their budgets online.
  • 60 counties include information on their websites about public government meetings.
  • 57 include information about the county’s elected officials.
  • 46 include information about the county’s administrative officials.
  • 52 counties give information about permits and zoning in the county.
  • 31 of the counties put information on their websites about audits that the county government has had performed.
  • 22 of the 67 counties give information about their contracts with county vendors.
  • 3 Counties (DuvalPalm BeachPinellas) disclose whether or not they belong to a government sector lobbying associations.
  • 8 counties (CalhounDixieDuvalEscambiaHighlandsOrangePinellasPolkPutnam) provide information on how to request public records using the Florida Sunshine Law.
  • 54 county websites provide some information about county taxes.

Additionally, Ballotpedia evaluated Ballot measure information on Florida county websites.

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SPECIAL REPORT: Florida’s Sunshine Laws

We at Watchdog Wire – Florida know that politicians change their behavior when they know the citizenry is watching.

That’s why Watchdog Wire and the Franklin Center are participating in Sunshine Week (March 10-16), a nationwide initiative focused on the importance of access to public information. We’ll be featuring articles and resources on FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), state open records law, and other transparency efforts all week.

Sunshine Review evaluates how transparent local and state governments are via a grading system. Florida’s cities, counties, school boards and the state all received a grade of “B”.

Recently, Enterprise Florida, the Florida Public Service Commission and Citizen’s Insurance have come under fire for their lack of transparency. Floridians frequently wake up and read about violations of Florida’s sunshine laws at the citycountyschool board and state agency level.

The common thread to each of these violations is a lack of sunshine in the sunshine state.

For example, did you know that State lawmakers have no power to require the Governor or Cabinet members to meet in public when they are exercising their constitutional administrative duties or acting as a policy-making board related by the Legislature, such as the State Board of Education. For instance, the governor’s deliberations with Cabinet members about whether to grant a pardon or clemency are not covered by the Sunshine Law because they involve constitutional duties, not statutory duties.

Sunshine Review notes, “The Florida Sunshine Law is a series of laws designed to guarantee that the public has access to the public records of governmental bodies in Florida. The law was first enacted in 1995. The original statutes state:

The Florida Open Meetings Law (Fla. Stat. sec 286) governs the extent to which public meetings are open to the public. The Florida Public Records Law (Fla. Stat. sec. 119) governs the inspection and copying of public records.

The University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information has a useful list of frequently asked questions:

1. When did Florida begin its tradition of openness?

2. What is the Sunshine Law?

3. What changed after the Constitutional Amendment in 1992 was approved?

4. How does the Sunshine Law work?

5. Who does the Sunshine Law apply to?

6. Which government bodies does the Sunshine Law cover?

7. What types of advisory committees have the Florida courts found to be subject to the Sunshine Law?

8. Which committees are exempt from the Sunshine Law?

9. Does the Sunshine Law Apply to the Governor and Cabinet?

10. What Legislative meetings are covered by the Sunshine Law?

11. What activities are covered by the Sunshine Law?

12. Are there exemptions to the Sunshine Law?

13. Are private organizations covered by the Sunshine Law?

14. Is a private organization that receives public funds subject to the requirements of the Sunshine Law?

15. Who is responsible for attorney’s fees when there is a lawsuit over the Sunshine Law?

To help you as a citizen prepare to hold your government accountable, we’ve compiled a list of action items that empower you to shine a light on government waste and abuse in your own communities:

1. Figure out FOIA here:  Florida FOIA procedures

2. Embrace money-tracking tools

3. Check visitor logs and daily schedules

4. Investigate stimulus dollars in your area

5. Dig deeper into ObamaCare repercussions

6. Track state pensions

7. Report on a local transparency hero

Click here to read the full list of transparency tips and report back your findings on Watchdog Wire. We will list your story in our special Sunshine Report featuring all citizen research and writing. E-mail your ideas, tips and questions to me at Florida@WatchdogWire.com.  If you want to write for Watchdog Wire – Florida, sign up here!

Here’s to an open and more accountable government.