We are six days into 2018 and if you have not thought of a resolution for the new year, then consider this: Resolve to take a part in your local government. It’s not a new idea and, for some, it is almost a profession. They mark those local meetings on their calendars like the rest of us mark appointments with doctors and dentists, and golf games.
Most of the time, these avid government-meeting-goers are just there. They don’t speak up or speak out, but they participate because they are there, and they keep their eyes and ears focused on the decision-makers and those who hope to sway the views of the decision-makers.
I don’t get to all the meetings I used to when I was working full-time but I can livestream on my computer (the phone’s screen is way too small for me), or, watch on the TV set in the front room.
Being able to be in the room is all thanks to a law passed in Florida and signed into law in 1967 — Chapter 286, Public Business, aka, Government-in-the- Sunshine. And often, I think back to my college days at the hotbed of access, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications where the Sunshine Law had its beginnings. Then state Rep. J. Emory “Red” Cross of Gainesville and Alachua County tried five times to get such a law passed after much push from UF J-school professors and its Sigma Delta Chi, national journalism society chapter. SDX is now known as The Society of Professional Journalists.
Cross took up the cause after speaking to the SDX chapter and chatting afterward with two UF professors of journalism, Horance G. “Buddy” Davis and Hugh Cunningham. As Davis recalled in a 1968 interview, they asked Cross about considering introducing such a bill to open government meetings to the public and provided the model law that was printed in The Quill, SDX’s national publication. Cross, in a separate interview for my article, said he used the model law because he said no other state had one.
The bill passed in 1967 and was signed into law. It seems that every session since, lawmakers find ways to tinker with it. And a good number of exemptions have passed over the years. But Florida’s core law remains intact, that a government agency, state or local, cannot keep us out of a meeting, unless there is a specific exemption. And then, the agency must state that exemption to the public.
Because of the Sunshine Law, we get to be in the room or, watch from our living room. We play an important role in protecting openness by showing up and taking our seat, or, sitting on the couch at home and letting the people we elect know we are watching, too.
So, when we hear about a proposed exemption that would have any impact on our access to our government, we must take a stand to protect our seats. Open government laws are for all of us, not just the news media.
Margo C. Pope was associated with The St. Augustine Record for 24 of her 42 years with Morris Publishing Group. She retired in 2012 as The Record’s editorial page editor.