America is the envy of the world because our Constitution gives us the right to live free, speak our minds and pick our leaders. But democracy only works if citizens know what's going on and can hold government accountable. And increasingly, politicians are creating barriers to hide what government is doing.
So on this Sunshine Sunday, an annual moment in time when the nation's news media steps back to assess government transparency, we must sadly report that our ability to watch government in action is eroding.
In Washington, the Obama administration has a terrible record on transparency. Its spokesmen are often unresponsive or hostile to press inquiries. Federal employees suspected of leaking information are subject to investigation, including lie-detector tests, according to a report by Columbia Journalism Review. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has said this administration is "turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press."
You see the attitude in the secretive behavior of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After her appointment, she set up a private email server at her home, putting public records off limits. On the campaign trail, she has refused to release transcripts of her Wall Street speeches. Indeed, her reputation for secrecy goes back to her 1993 health care task force, her 2006 secret energy task force and her continued refusal to disclose foreign donations to her family's foundation.
Closer to home in Tallahassee, try getting a straight answer from Gov. Rick Scott. It happened again this past week, when the hosts of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" asked the governor about his friend Donald Trump's view of Muslims. "Do you think Muslims in the state of Florida hate America?" he was asked. The governor dodged, repeatedly, bringing the answer back to jobs. The frustrated hosts finally cut him off.
The governor's unresponsive answers are familiar to Floridians. Ask him what he thinks about an issue and he'll likely say, "I have to see the bill." But what would you like to see happen, governor? "I'll have to see the bill."
This is the same governor who doesn't use email or text messages, so as not to leave a paper trail that would let citizens know what he's doing. He uses a private jet, too, so he doesn't have to tell people where he's going or who he's meeting with. And last year, he and Attorney General Pam Bondi signed a $700,000 settlement for violating public records laws. That money, by the way, didn't come from their pockets. It came from the pockets of taxpayers.
The Florida Legislature, meanwhile, continues its relentless attack on your right to know. Last year, 12 percent of its bills created new exemptions to our constitutional right of access. This year, the First Amendment Foundation tracked 74 such bills. (Editor's note: Sun Sentinel Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O'Hara serves on the foundation's board of directors.)
One bill this year was designed to hide the addresses of people who get hunting or fishing licenses, presumably so no one will break into their homes and steal their guns or fishing poles. Another would have exempted the names of nurses licensed in another state who practice in Florida, creating a special class of anonymous medical professionals.
Another would have kept citizens from seeing videos like that of Martin Lee Anderson, who was beaten to death in a Panhandle boot camp. Another would have exempted the addresses of registered voters, making it impossible to track absentee voter fraud. Another, which passed, makes secret the results of boxing matches until after they air on television. Talk about an exemption ripe for abuse.
On the surface, some exemptions may sound reasonable, like a law passed last year that shields the home addresses of current or former U.S. military members who've served since Sept. 11. But here's the consequence: Before government can tell you about crime reports in your area, or immigrants accused of Medicare fraud, or a business that beat you out of a contract, you first must pay someone in government to comb the records of any veterans.
While well-intentioned, the more than 1,100 exemptions to the Sunshine Law are making it harder and more expensive for citizens to hold government accountable.
Perhaps you recall that last year, we noted how Jason Parsley, executive editor of the South Florida Gay News, was told he'd have to pay $399,000 for the Broward Sheriff's Office to do a three-month search of agency emails for gay and racial slurs.
It's not just the media, either, that faces obstructionist tactics.
In Lake City, resident Barbara Lemley was told that to obtain a single-page document from the hospital authority, she'd have to come in, pre-pay the 30-cent fee and return the next day to pick it up.
And in Orlando, resident Susan Hewlings fought Orange County Animal Services for four years — four years! — to obtain records about her dog having bitten another dog. The Fifth District Court of Appeal called it a classic case of government making a mountain out of a molehill.
In South Florida, examples of government secrecy abound. Most recently, we saw it at Broward County's two public hospital systems, where one tried to hide the names of CEO candidates and another went behind closed doors to award a multi-million dollar, no-bid contract.
We've seen it at county center, too, where Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry selected the new director of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport without reviewing a single piece of paper to get around the Sunshine Law.
For our annual Sunshine audit this year, the state's newspapers tested whether politicians are archiving text messages, as required.
The results were mixed. Reporter Brittany Wallman says Broward County commissioners promptly supplied text messages the day after a big Uber debate, but reporter Dan Sweeney has yet to receive a month's worth of text messages from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putney's office.
Mostly, we're forced to trust politicians when they say they have "no records responsive to your request."
So there you go, this Sunshine Sunday. Our state's public records and open meeting laws are under assault. And when politicians at all levels of government say there's nothing there, we have to trust them.
Again, democracy only works if people know what's going on and can hold government accountable.
Heads-up, people. The doors are closing on our right to know.