Sunday, March 14, 2010

Stay in the Sunshine

And editorial on today's

Openness can be messy, but it's essential

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, no doubt is a man of character. Keeping his promise to a friend and constituent who was horrified to hear a 911 call linked to his son's death broadcast on TV, Mr. Cretul is working to exempt 911 calls from Florida's public records laws.

We are sympathetic to his friend. This had to be horrifying. It provides yet another example of how open government and freedom can be messy. It is that freedom, as messy as it might be, and our history of government transparency that we celebrate today on Sunshine Sunday in America, an event created and popularized in the Sunshine State.

The proposed bill would be a blow to open government and to citizen efforts to watch over the actions of government.

The House might actually pass the bill, if Mr. Cretul decides to force it through, as he did in earning an 8-5 passage in a House committee. We urge that it die there, that the House not approve it. While there is currently no Senate version of the bill, that could change in the blink of a political deal come budget crunch time.

If the bill somehow works its way through the full Legislature, as unlikely as it might seem, we would urge Gov. Charlie Crist, who says he opposes it, to use his veto.

While this is a kind and sympathetic gesture on Mr. Cretul's part, it would be awful public policy.

Already under current law, personal identifying information about callers is redacted when 911 tapes are released. That's what exemptions do: They protect inappropriate intrusions into the privacy expectations of individuals in order to allow citizens to know what their government is doing.

But exempting all 911 tapes is not like most other exemptions. This one would remove from citizen review one of the most crucial interactions of the public and its government. Lives and property are at stake when the call is made to emergency dispatchers. How well they and other public safety workers respond might not be the only time a citizen interacts with government, but it might be the only one that ultimately matters.

Ask the family of Denise Amber Lee, a 21-year-old mother of two who was kidnapped from her North Port home, raped and murdered. Her call to 911 was not forwarded to police. The dispatchers were eventually disciplined.

Her family opposes the exemption.
Mrs. Lee's father-in-law, Mark Lee, called it "a bad, bad bill." Her family has worked to provide training to emergency dispatchers across the country, and to hold them accountable. This bill would work against everything his family is trying to accomplish, Mr. Lee said.
We are equally sympathetic to this father.
In our region, local emergency radio traffic already has been taken off the air waves and encrypted, blocking immediate public access and review; now comes this bill, which would exempt review after the fact as well.
The legislative leadership has talked about wanting to make government more efficient. If that is just code for smaller, that is one thing. But if it truly wants government to work smarter and better, it must understand that this must occur in the open, in full public view with provisions that allow the public to identify failures and to fix them.
We are sympathetic to those who want to block nosy neighbors from intruding in family matters. It should not, however, be the job of government to help with problematic neighbors or to compromise all of our rights to access and watch our government.

It is, as we said earlier, another example of the messiness of free and open government. Government in the Sunshine is less than perfect, but as Florida has long known, better than any alternative.