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The nation's first? Florida voters will get to decide whether or not to make the state's open meetings and records law a constitutional amendment.

Florida may well become the first state to put a right to open public meetings and public records in its constitution.

By unanimous votes in its House and Senate, the Florida Legislature put a far-reaching "sunshine amendment" on the November general election ballot.

"If approved by voters, this amendment will set the stage for substantially more government in the sunshine in Florida. It will make Florida the only state in the nation to have an open government policy on record and meetings in its constitution," said state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a prime mover for the measure.

Miami Herald managing editor Pete Weitzel, who negotiated for the ballot measure on behalf of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, predicted the amendment would pass overwhelmingly.

"With the tradition in this state toward open government, I think it is not necessary" to launch an expensive campaign, Weitzel said. "It is not an issue anyone is going to stand up and oppose."

Weitzel noted that in two recent referendums open government proposals were approved by lopsided margins of about six to one.

The amendment would fill an open records policy vacuum created when the Florida Supreme Court last November unexpectedly ruled that the state's 1909 public records law cannot be applied to the governor or individual members of the Cabinet, Legislature, or judiciary.

The ruling came in a case in which two legislators resisted demands for their correspondence from their respective election opponents. The high court ruled that the law applied only to agencies created by the Legislature.

Florida officials vowed to continue operating as if the public records law still applied, but press groups such as the Florida Press Association and Florida Society of Newspaper Editors lobbied for the constitutional amendment.

At the urging of the press groups, the amendment was broadened to include open meetings policy.

News groups feared that Florida's far-reaching Open Meetings Act could fall victim to a similar court ruling.

Florida's proposed sunshine amendment offers this sweeping right: "Every person has the right to inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body."

All exemptions to that right "would have to meet a constitutional standard of 'public necessity' and could be no broader than needed to accomplish that purpose," according to a fact sheet from the attorney general's office. Also, exemptions would have to be voted on by the Legislature.

Importantly, Miami Herald's Weitzel noted, each exemption would have to be proposed in its own bill.

This would prevent legislators from slipping open records or meetings changes into the so-called Christmas tree bills rushed into law at the end of legislative sessions. In two recent cases, changes that would have narrowed public access to child abuse and police records nearly became law without debate.

As is practice now, court meetings can be exempted by the rules of the Florida Supreme Court.

However, any rule in effect on July 1, 1993, would become law and could be changed only by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature.

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Author:Fitzgerald, Mark
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Feb 29, 1992
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