Crist Advocates Open Government
Elected officials in Florida can be relied upon to support open government - in the abstract. Now, a governor has been elected who says he'll actually do something about it.
Gov.-elect Charlie Crist announced this week that he is creating an office of open government as part of the Governor's Office. No previous governor has done such a thing, even though the open-records law dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and the open- meetings law was put on the books in 1967.
In practice, most governors have chafed under those laws. While affirming their devotion to the idea that citizens have a right to see how their government conducts its business, governors tend to be fairly secretive about their own administrations. And because the governor alone has the power to discipline local officials who violate open-government laws, suspensions from office have been rare almost to the point of nonexistence. That kind of not-so-benign neglect has only encouraged local officials to test the limits of the laws and their enforcement.
If he's serious - and the appointment of open-government expert Pat Gleason to head the new office indicates he is - Crist is in position to demand compliance with the laws.
The main purposes of the new office, according to an announcement from Crist's office, will be to "assure full and expeditious compliance" with the open-government laws, and to "provide training to all government agencies on transparency and accountability." In other words, the office will teach elected and appointed government officials how to comply with the law and will make sure they do so.
"Respecting the public trust that is bestowed upon all of us who serve the people of Florida is a top priority for me and for my administration," Crist said in announcing the appointment of Gleason, who has been the top open-government official in the Attorney General's Office, and JoAnn Carrin, the attorney general's communications director, as the leaders of the new initiative.
As attorney general, Crist built a strong reputation for upholding open government, carrying on a tradition established decades ago by predecessors such as Robert Shevin and Bob Butterworth. Crist even won a "Friend of the First Amendment" award from the First Amendment Foundation of Florida, which advocates in favor of open-government laws and policies.
Barbara Petersen, the foundation's president, told The Tampa Tribune that Crist "aggressively made open government a big part of his administration. It's not just convenient for Charlie Crist, he really believes this."
It's about time. Open government has taken a drubbing in recent years, both in Tallahassee and in the secretive Bush administration in Washington. It's refreshing to find an elected chief executive - and a Republican at that - willing to make public access to government a basic part of his job description.