Over the decades, many full-of-themselves lawmakers have buckled under the steely weight of Barbara Petersen’s gaze. Or maybe it’s her mastery of the Sternly Worded Letter that does the trick.
Both are backed by the inarguable reality that Petersen is one of the top open-government lawyers in the nation. As president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, she’s spent more than 25 years fighting off attempts by elected officials to conduct public business behind closed doors, while defending Floridians’ right to access public records, providing training in Sunshine-law compliance and finding attorneys for individuals forced to fight for access to records or meetings.
Even though she recently announced plans to retire at the end of 2019, her influence will make Florida government stronger and more accountable for a long time to come.
Barbara Petersen has done more to ensure the public’s right to know in Florida than any other person. She has lobbied tirelessly on behalf of the First Amendment Foundation and the public at the state Legislature to keep bad bills from becoming law and snipping away at Florida’s sunshine laws. She has taught thousands of city, county and state public officials about open meetings and open records laws, and as a result most local governments have a firm understanding of the public’s right to know. And she has definitively answered questions from untold numbers of reporters and citizens about our Sunshine laws.
And she can back her play with the strong protections set out in the state constitution. Those require any public-records exemption or closed meeting to serve a narrowly defined purpose, and go only as far as needed to achieve that end.
Still, that doesn’t stop lawmakers from trying, again and again, to block the public’s right to information — as Petersen puts it, “They just keep popping up like Whack-a-Mole.” To date, the number of exemptions to Florida’s laws has reached 1,130 as of the recent legislative session. Some pass muster, addressing items — such as Social Security numbers of public employees or clients of public agencies — that need to be protected.
Florida’s laws have consistently been models for other states, including a 1995 provision that explicitly included electronic records — at the time, mostly email exchanges, but now Facebook posts, online chats and other communications related to government business — under state records and open meetings laws.
Even though she’s officially stepping down a few weeks before the 2020 session starts, lawmakers should acknowledge her contribution by modernizing that law, encouraging the use of software that can easily strip public records of exempt information that is legally exempt. Petersen says she’d also like to see legislation that targets various foot-dragging techniques state agencies use to stall public records requests.
That seems like a good goal for lawmakers, and an excellent way to acknowledge Petersen’s quarter-century of fierce but friendly defense of Florida’s famed Sunshine.
This editorial originally appeared in the Daytona Beach News-Journal.