Meet the woman fighting behind the scenes to defend open government in Florida

Photo of Barbara Petersen courtesy of the First Amendment Foundation

Barbara Petersen has been fighting back efforts to make Florida’s government less transparent for more than 20 years. There haven’t been many battles more consequential than the one she’s waging right now.

Over the last few years, there have been reports about a handful of people or firms using the state’s strong public records law in gotcha-style stings, essentially to extract legal fees from unwitting violators. Predictably, that led to demands to change the law.

But when a legislative fix was introduced late last year, with strong support from local municipalities, it was hardly tailored to the problem: Instead, the bill would give judges complete discretion over when to award attorneys’ fees in records cases, by changing the word “shall” to “may.” The effect on records disputes, as I wrote in January, would be to “make litigation less likely, and the threat of a suit a less effective deterrent to misbehavior.”

The measure represented a serious threat to public-records access, by weakening an important incentive for compliance. But then Petersen, the president of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation, got to work.

When the bill was filed, “I immediately started letting people know,” she says. “This was going to be huge. This was like dropping a nuke on Tallahassee because of a mouse over on College Avenue.”

The foundation, started in the 1980s by a consortium of media groups, is a leading institutional advocate for open government in the state—but Petersen didn’t come to this fight alone. The foundation had recently worked to organize the Florida Sunshine Coalition, gathering together a variety of groups and individuals who have an interest in government transparency, even though it isn’t their primary focus. Those connections were helpful in getting people like Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, pushing back on the change to the law.

Petersen also alerted the media, helping to attract widespread coverage to the proposal.

And she worked directly with the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Rene Garcia, and testified before a Senate committee, something she rarely does.

Those efforts paid off: Garcia was willing to listen to reason, Petersen said. He amended his Senate bill to require a judge award attorneys’ fees when an agency wrongly withholds records unless the judge finds, according to the revised language, “that the public record request was made for the primary purpose of (1) harassing the agency or (2) causing a violation of the public records law.”  That change addresses concerns about predatory records requests, while maintaining the default expectation that violators will have to pay legal fees—an important incentive to comply with the law.

The House version hasn’t been amended, so the issue isn’t entirely resolved yet. But at this point, the Florida Senate is no longer considering a bill that would have dramatically weakened the state’s public records law. That’s a win—one Petersen can claim much of the credit for.

“She relishes the fight,” said Dave Wilson, senior editor at The Miami Herald and board chairman of the First Amendment Foundation. “She’s really made it her life’s work. Very few people who have benefited from her work know about it.”

In fact, reporters who cover the legislature told me they rarely see Petersen walking the halls. Much of her work is behind the scenes, one of the reasons so few people outside of media circles and the legislature know what she does.

Every year Petersen tracks every bill that affects Florida’s public records and government in the sunshine laws, focusing her advocacy on the ones that seem to overreach. The foundation doesn’t “whine about every bill,” she adds, but “we pick out the ones we think we can fix.”

Those efforts have impact: Over the years, Petersen has become the state’s leading advocate for government transparency. Some legislators will ask where the foundation stands on a public records law amendment before voting on it. (Not everyone is so friendly: In the charged atmosphere after 9/11, when Petersen opposed some bills of questionable utility that had to do with airplanes, “I had one lobbyist call me and tell me I would be personally responsible for the next terrorist attack,” she recalls.)

Petersen came to this role in 1995, following a circuitous route. After a variety of odd jobs, from bookkeeping to pumping gas at a marina, she went to law school in her late 30s. She then worked for four years on a legislative committee tasked with updating Florida laws to handle new technological demands, including the public records law, which did not yet take into account electronic records.

The opportunity to run the First Amendment Foundation was a dream job, she says. Though the foundation is supported by many of the major newspapers in the state—it gets nearly a quarter of its funding from media organizations, board vice-chair Bob Shaw told me—it sees its mission as upholding open government and free expression more broadly.

“We don’t see ourselves as representatives of the media,” said Shaw, a retired editor for The Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel. Large news organizations, which still have budgets to fight records violations, would have been less affected by the legal-fees change than small sites or private citizens, he noted. “In this case, it’s the non-corporate public we were standing up for. There have been lots of exemptions passed in recent years that narrow the public’s right to records but I don’t recall any bill as far reaching as this one was.”

Petersen also worked to narrow the scope of another bill this session, this one to exempt all of the personal information on voter rolls. That’s the kind of information the Herald used in 2013 to uncover ballot fraud. The people who would still have access to that information? Campaign workers, like the one indicted after the Herald uncovered his actions.

Petersen worked with the bills’ sponsors to get the language changed. Now it only exempts the information of 16- and 17-year-olds who have pre-registered to vote—an obvious fix to address the stated concerns of the original measure’s proponents, while maintaining transparency and the access needed for public oversight.

As the legislative session continues, Petersen will continue to track the attorneys’ fees bill, the voter file bill, and the 72 other measures, according to the foundation’s ticker, that would affect the public’s right to know. 

“I don’t get tired of it,” she said. “I get frustrated, but I don’t get tired of it. I don’t think there’s anything more fundamental to a democratic society than the people’s right to oversee their government and hold it accountable. That’s why we call public officials public servants—they work for us.”

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.