- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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April 28

The Orlando Sentinel on residents’ access to courts:

The Florida Constitution declares that courts in the state “shall be open to every person for redress of any injury.”

It’s an admirable principle. Too bad it’s still more of a goal than a reality in Florida.

Millions of state residents can’t afford to hire a lawyer to help them resolve urgent matters in civil court. These include make-or-break issues for individuals and their families. Obtaining veterans’ benefits. Contesting foreclosures. Recovering from disasters. Settling family disputes. Securing protection from domestic violence.

Some of these Floridians are fortunate enough to get assistance through organizations that provide legal aid. But if a proposal from President Trump to eliminate federal funding for the Legal Services Corp. becomes law, far fewer will get help.

While lawyers could take up some of the slack, as a group in Florida they already donate millions of dollars and millions of hours each year to clients who can’t pay. Another funding source, interest on attorney trust accounts, has plummeted since the Great Recession pushed rates toward zero.

The Legal Services Corp. helps fill the civil justice gap by providing grants to local agencies throughout the country to hire legal aid lawyers or arrange for pro bono assistance from private lawyers. This year, seven regional organizations in Florida together received almost $22 million from the LSC.

This group includes Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, which provides legal help to low- and moderate-income residents in 12 Central Florida counties, including Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake. Last year, this regional organization served 17,500 people, including 6,500 children, 1,675 seniors, 1,300 domestic violence survivors and 800 veterans. While it draws funding from other contributors, including the Florida Bar Foundation, law firms, businesses, local governments and local United Way chapters, the LSC provides a significant share of its budget.

Advocates in Florida for federal legal aid, including Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, went to Washington, D.C., this week to appeal for support from the state’s congressional delegation. They arrived armed with facts about the thousands of Floridians who would lose legal assistance without LSC funding.

Maintaining that funding is a worthy priority for members in both parties. But regardless of what happens on the federal level, state legislators can - and should - help, too.

Florida is one of just three states that doesn’t provide any state funding for legal aid. In recent years, legislators included annual allocations of up to $2 million in state budgets, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed them.

This was shortsighted, especially for a governor who talks so much about return on investment. When Floridians obtain the benefits they’re owed through the help of legal aid, they bolster their local economies by spending the money at local businesses. When they get help avoiding foreclosures, domestic violence or other personal crises, they’re less likely to need services or monetary benefits from government agencies or nonprofits.

Floridians who get the legal help they need to stabilize their lives are more likely to be assets for their families, employers and communities. No wonder a study commissioned by the Florida Bar Foundation found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid yields $7 in economic benefits.

Now that federal funding is in doubt, the only responsible course for legislators putting the finishing touches on next year’s state budget is to make sure Florida has a back-up plan. There’s more than enough money in next year’s budget - especially after a $1.5 billion windfall from the Trump administration for charity care at hospitals - to make up for the entire federal cut Florida would suffer if LSC funding is not maintained.

Scott has already called on legislators to increase funding for the state’s tourism promotion agency, Visit Florida, to $100 million, and to spend $200 million to fix the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee. An additional $22 million for legal aid would be modest by comparison, but it would have a life-changing impact for thousands of Floridians. It would strengthen their communities and the state’s economy, too.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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April 29

The Ledger of Lakeland on HB 843:

The Florida Legislature’s intent on undermining the anti-hanky panky protections enshrined in the Florida Constitution nearly 50 years ago have become so routine, so matter-of-fact that it sometimes raises questions about whether we should continue to point them out and urge them to cut it out.

Nonetheless, we shall soldier on - because this topic is too important to retreat to the sidelines.

According to the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, the indefatigable watchdog of Floridians’ access to government records and proceedings, the Florida House on Friday was set to consider a bill that would allow two members of the same elected board, or an appointed board that must adhere to the state’s open-meetings laws, to attend a meeting wherein public policy could be discussed without notifying the public that such a meeting is taking place, or allowing members of the public attend. The bill applies only to boards of at least five members, but it also extends the secrecy provisions to officials who have been elected but have yet to take office.

Outlawing such gatherings has been a foundational aspect of Florida’s Sunshine Laws for a couple of generations. But, hey, what’s the point of all that history when there is conniving to be done.

Under the Sunshine Law, government boards are permitted to conduct business behind closed doors in certain circumstances. They can meet, for example, to discuss union contracts or legal settlements. But even then the public must be notified when such executive sessions will take place.

According to a House staff analysis of the measure in question (HB 843), if it is enacted, a pair of board members could assemble without fear of being sanctioned and the only notification the public gets is a statement verifying that the meeting was a “public necessity” that served “to facilitate a more thorough vetting of policies and appropriations that such members are responsible for examining and understanding.”

The bill, sponsored by Republican Reps. Byron Donalds and Bob Rommel, both of Naples, does include some caveats that appear designed to safeguard the public interest.

For example, the two board members who gather in the name of vetting policies cannot: adopt any resolution or rule that signals their formal action, or agree to take any specific action at a future meeting of the entire board; discuss any taxpayer-funded appropriation or government contract; meet solely to “frustrate or circumvent” open meeting laws.

That’s fine. But as the First Amendment Foundation asks: How will we know what they discuss if the meeting is private?

The other question we have is: Why is this necessary?

Under existing laws, proponents of good government can take action if or once they discover that two board members collaborated in secret. It is then up to law enforcement, prosecutors and judges to sort it out. But even then, there is no guarantee, and in fact, we should consider going the other way by tightening restrictions on such meetings.

Earlier this month the Fort Myers News Press reported that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement declined to investigate whether two trustees of Florida Gulf Coast University violated Sunshine Laws by meeting privately, even though the inspector general for the state university system believed they did. Why? Because, an FDLE spokesman explained, the Constitution lacks any enforcement provisions for violators.

Let’s be real for a moment.

Most Floridians don’t have the time, energy, or interest to attend meetings of local government boards even when they operate in full compliance with the Sunshine Laws - which, by the way, is the overwhelming majority of the time. But even when the public is largely absent we do want to believe that elected or appointed leaders will operate above-board. To ensure that they continue to do so, we must not create opportunities, like HB 843, that water down the rules protecting that.

HB 843 has sailed through two House committees with only token opposition. That means the full House will likely support it. Sad. Our best hope is that a companion bill that has languished for almost the entire session in the more moderate and thoughtful Senate will remain dormant. Just in case, contact your senator and tell him or her to keep it that way, and to keep shut this misguided door to mischief-making.

Online: https://www.theledger.com/

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April 30

The Miami Herald on the Florida Legislature’s secrecy:

As it nears the end of its session the Florida Legislature has had a heck of a ride. One state senator utters horrendous, hurtful words more often spewed in secret, while lawmakers instead, have drawn a veil of secrecy over how they are conducting the public’s business.

The rise and fall of Miami Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles has been well-documented. Not so much the secret deals and the bills fast-tracked at head-spinning speed. Some pave the way for lawmakers to continue to undermine Sunshine laws, which for decades have put Florida in the vanguard of government accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, Florida’s lawmakers just don’t like that.

The House and Senate have agreed upon a number of major policy issues, the result of deals between the leadership of each chamber. The resolution to expand gambling in Florida and bring a new casino to Miami-Dade rose out of undercover deal-making, which the Editorial Board lamented recently.

In fact, state lawmakers have ironed out Florida’s massive state budget with little public scrutiny, the message being, “No need to worry your pretty little heads about any of this.”

Which means, of course, that Floridians should be very worried. Open government is under attack.

Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, for example, introduced a bill that would seal the criminal records of those charged with felonies and misdemeanors if the state attorney declines to file charges; all charges were dismissed before trial; or if the person charged was acquitted.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, is concerned. We should all be. “If a criminal history record was sealed, you will not find any mention of it on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s criminal history information web page,” she said.

Though such arrests should not necessarily dog a person forever, dropped or dismissed charges don’t always mean a suspect is innocent. Rather, authorities didn’t have enough evidence to make the case.

Let’s say a criminal background check is done on someone applying to care for children. Any previous arrest would not show up. There’s no red flag.

Another bill, already sent to Gov. Rick Scott, would require the identity of witnesses to murders to be kept secret for two years, which would make it harder for the public to hold police and prosecutors accountable.

Yet another would keep applicants’ names for university presidencies under wraps.

As we have said in the past, the state is drawing the blinds on its Sunshine laws, which affirm Floridians’ right to be informed about how elected officials are - and aren’t - working on their behalf. A bill passed by the House would thwart significant aspects of that guarantee - and potentially render it meaningless - by allowing local elected officials, from city and county commissioners to school board members, to meet behind closed doors and discuss public matters in secret.

Two members could meet privately could discuss an issue, then meet with other members to sway - for good or for ill - the outcome of any public vote. The bill tries to ameliorate any potential damage by prohibiting these officials from discussing in secret public monies or a contract tied to a private business. Feel better?

This push to deprive Floridians of the right to hold their officials accountable is beyond disturbing. It’s not too late for lawmakers who truly put the people’s business first to push back.

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com/

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