Can DeSantis keep secrets from us?

The following editorial was published in The Daily Sun on July 27, 2023.

OUR POSITION: Gov. Ron DeSantis is going too far by hiding information from the public that should be available through Florida’s Sunshine Laws.

One of our biggest beefs with Gov. Ron DeSantis is how he has never warmed up to the idea the public has the right to information about state government.

He has tip-toed around the state’s strict Sunshine Laws since being voted into office five years ago. One of his more public and controversial stabs at averting handing out public information was when, at his urging, the Legislature approved a bill that shielded his travel plans. We were not allowed to know where he went, how he went and how much it cost taxpayers.

Now, he wants to be awarded “executive privilege” to hide more records and information from us. His only real reason is just because he wants to.

The latest public records rift was outlined in a USA Today/ Tallahassee Democrat story recently.

In that story, which was widely circulated, DeSantis defended his appointment of conservative judges to appeals courts during a podcast with Hugh Hewitt, a conservative host.

DeSantis has said long ago that he used a “group of people I trust,” to advise him on the selections for the courts. In the USA Today story he said those advisors were “six or seven pretty big legal conservative heavyweights.”

DeSantis has refused to reveal who they were.

A public records request to get the names of the people who helped appoint the judges, who make decisions affecting all Floridians, has been filed. But, so far, it has been ignored.

After weeks of the governor’s office refusing to respond to the public records request, which should be a violation of state law, a suit was filed.

DeSantis and his lawyers say the public records request was vague and asked for more information.

Finally, they got to the meat of the matter. They said the records should be protected by executive privilege. That is something that has never been invoked by an elected government official we know of in Florida.

The action brought quick condemnation.

The USA Today story quoted the Florida Center for Government Accountability and the League of Women Voters of Florida, among others who filed a friend-of-the-court brief, that DeSantis’ interpretation “runs afoul of the virtually unfettered right of access and serves no public purpose. In the 178 years that Florida has existed, not a single court decision has recognized the existence of any executive privilege.”

Actually, in January this year a Leon County circuit judge sided with DeSantis in a public records case. It was unprecedented at the time. Florida’s Constitution allows only the Legislature to approved exemptions to the public records laws.

The person who filed the public records request, who has remained anonymous, has appealed the case to the Florida First District Court of Appeal.

This case is not a matter of liberals attacking DeSantis and trying to interfere with his governing the state.

The decision on executive privilege will have a historic impact on Florida’s Sunshine Laws and affect the ability of every citizen to know what is going on in state and local government. If DeSantis wins approval to shield information it could open the door for local governments to do the same.

Pretty soon, the public would have no idea what is being planned behind closed doors until it is too late. Property could be sold for purposes that might not be suitable to the neighborhood or healthy for the environment. Taxes could be raised. Fees added to government- run utilities.

Florida’s Sunshine Laws have always been a model for other states. If we allow them to be chipped away, piece by piece until their strength is nullified, it will be a huge mistake.

 Image Credits: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) debates his Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist, at the Sunrise Theatre in Fort Pierce, Fla., on Monday. (Crystal Vander Weiter/Pool via Reuters)