The public has a firm right to view the public’s business
Written by Michael Lewis on September 8, 2015
Miami-Dade commissioners covet a bit of backroom wheeling and dealing out of the public eye, perhaps cutting deals and swapping votes for whatever.
Little has created more distrust than such hidden government dealing – witness concerns about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server rather than official channels as secretary of state.
That distrust is why Florida in 1967 created our Sunshine Law, which bars commissioners from privately discussing legislation, budgets, zoning and more. Otherwise, commissioners could hash out issues, trade favors, cut deals, call each other names or just explain their thinking in one-on-one talks and we’d never know.
It’s so much more efficient, some say, to just debate in private and then vote in public. Things would get done and nobody need know how or why. It would be so much more efficient than if actions have to be explained.
Efficiency is why Miami-Dade commissioners voted last week to ask the legislature to weaken the Sunshine Law so that they can meet in pairs – at least, they say it’s for efficiency. They also say they could get to know each other better and resolve things privately. It would all be so nice and friendly.
Meeting in pairs, they say, they could reach deals without having to use lobbyists as go-betweens, which Commissioner Bruno Barreiro complained is how they now deal out of the public eye.
The Sunshine Law “should be called the Lobbyist Empowerment Act,” Mr. Barreiro said. Of course, the law only empowers lobbyists if commissioners want to skirt the law and communicate without the public knowing, which apparently they do regularly.
The lone dissenter, Daniella Levine Cava, conceded the logistics challenges of communicating in the sunshine but warned against less transparency: “I believe that in an effort to be more efficient and have two meet out of the sunshine it could reduce trust in government.”
Is there a reason for distrust? Do some commissioners really hate for you to know what’s going on?
In discussing the vote sought by former legislator and now Commissioner Juan Zapata to weaken the Sunshine Law, Commissioner Barbara Jordan told him quite seriously, “I hope you are not one of those who voted on the Sunshine Law.”
Mr. Zapata distanced himself from Sunshine: “I wouldn’t have voted for that,” he said quickly.
Now, he said of his measure to allow private huddles, “I know there are some current members [of the legislature] who are going to file this legislation in Tallahassee.”
We’d empathize with pleas that commissioners need to meet in private if it added anything they can’t legally do now. But they often meet and talk in pairs now, all in accord with the Sunshine Law. They just have to let the public know and attend, and that’s what some of them don’t want to keep doing.
Sure, it’s more bother to talk when the public gets to know about it, but they can do it. So why shut out the public unless what they want to do isn’t legal?
Just what is it, commissioners, that you don’t want the public to hear? What is so secret? That question will echo if this pernicious plan should happen to pass in Tallahassee.
Open government gets messy. People disagree, tempers flare. The public even gets to speak. It is, after all, government of, by and for the people, not of, by and for the elected officials.
So much more efficient to meet privately.
Even more efficient would be a nice benevolent dictatorship. It’s fast and sure. And there’s no ugly disagreement. Unfortunately, there has never been a nice benevolent dictatorship that put the interests of the governed ahead of the government. That’s why this nation was founded.
Our commissioners would seethe against dictatorship. But in putting their own convenience ahead of the right of the people to see their county in action and be able to participate, we would be taking a step back from free and open government.
As Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, told commissioners before last week’s vote, “The public depends on transparency now more than ever to make sure that issues are discussed in the public eye. And I think that this resolution is a slippery slope.… I think this could send the wrong message if you pass it.”
She was spot on. It sent exactly the wrong message, one of closed government that people would have even more cause to mistrust. Not that anything would necessarily be nefarious in private one-on-one meetings, but the public would never, ever know whether it was nefarious or not.
That is the point: the public has a right to know the public’s business. It is not lawmakers’ private concerns. As soon as we take public business private, everyone loses – including elected leaders, who could face mistrust and allegations of which they might be totally innocent.
Totally innocent, but because it was all in secret no one would ever know that, would they?