Opinion: Leadership in Crisis: A Call for Transparency and Open Government
If you aspired to be a great leader, would you send your team into harm’s way with incomplete or inaccurate information? What would happen if you withheld important facts that could have saved lives or changed the outcome? When your team discovered, while in this dangerous situation, that you knew information and didn’t share it with them, they would stop trusting you. You would not be a great leader. You would be a failure.
While the nation has been distracted by handwashing and empty aisles of toilet paper, many of our leaders, even our governor, refuse to provide crucial, public information. Not only does this violate our constitutional rights, it’s a matter of life and death. We must have accurate information to make decisions, to care for loved ones, and to get to the other side of this COVID-19 crisis with any trust in government.
Governor Ron DeSantis is CEO atop the nation’s third most populous state. He should lead by example in the sunshine, with transparency, especially regarding elder care and public safety. The state should release records that would show which long-term care facilities have active COVID-19 cases, but it hasn’t. Instead, we find stronger leadership in places like Pensacola, where Mayor Grover Robinson called for the state to disclose nursing home data. Mayor Robinson was soon joined in his call for transparency by Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood, who feared for the safety of first responders arriving at nursing homes without full information.
The same requirements for transparency apply to local governments. On March 20, 2020, Governor DeSantis issued Executive Order 20-69, which allows local governments to satisfy a quorum required to conduct business by telephone or internet. Based upon the sound advice of our Attorney General, Governor DeSantis made the right decision to allow local leaders to meet safely, remotely and openly.
But EO 20-69 does not allow government to conduct business without prior public notice and public participation. All open government “sunshine” laws and public records laws remain unchanged. They are constitutional and, thankfully, cannot be altered by Executive Order.
Let me make this clear, your County and City Commission and other government bodies may now meet by telephone or video conferencing platforms, but they must let you know when and how they are meeting. (Pensacola and Miami, among others, are making admirable efforts to keep citizens informed.) And they must provide you with a way — and better yet, multiple ways — to submit questions and comments regarding the issues discussed.
At the First Amendment Foundation, we are trying to keep track. On our website — www.floridafaf.org — we are tracking how local governments are meeting. Are they meeting openly in the sunshine, as required by law — or are they meeting in the dark, making important decisions without notice and without the people who elected them?
When state and local governments make decisions without full public participation and voice, our First Amendment right to free speech is violated.
Maybe it is unfair for me to criticize, working remotely from the safety of my home. However, like all of you, I have skin in this game, too. Every single one of us has connections and losses: deaths and illness of friends and family when you aren’t allowed to hold their hands, loved ones you can’t visit in nursing homes, job losses, health insurance costs, savings depleted, unemployment system and federal loan application failures — leaving us with fear and anxiety in our isolation.
This is a time when we should not assume we understand the worries and stresses another person carries. This is a time for compassion and connection.
It is also a time for accurate information and awareness.
So this is what I ask of you: Pay attention to what your government is doing; read and support the state’s newspapers and investigative reporters, and help us help you. You can see our government tracking data at www.floridafaf.org, and you can help us keep our information up to date by emailing us at email@example.com or by calling our hotline at 1-800-337-3518. We won’t survive this without you and without government oversight.
And just a direct word to Governor DeSantis and his staff: The First Amendment Foundation wants to be a resource, not an adversary. The media does not have to be your enemy. Together, we can help you provide accurate, life-saving information.
We want to know which nursing homes and assisted living facilities have COVID cases. We don’t ask for personal patient information, just general names of nursing homes with positive cases. When families know the truth, they make better decisions and cope better with outcomes.
We want to know which prisons have cases, for the same reason.
We want accurate information about the number of available hospital beds and ventilators in our counties. We want to know the truth about Florida’s unemployment numbers, health insurance gaps and food distribution. How can we help our communities if we don’t know the truth about its needs?
If you begin to lead our entire state by example, with total transparency, only then will you have our trust as a leader.
Pamela C. Marsh is president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.