Sunshine laws critical to keeping government in check

March 10, 2013 

Today marks the beginning of national Sunshine Week, designed to spark discussions across the country about the significance of open government and freedom of information. The twin cornerstones of an accountable and transparent democracy help ensure government of the people by the people, and, most importantly, for the people -- and not the power brokers, outright crooks and other self-serving conspirators.

Citizens who are engaged in their communities in one way or another earn our deep respect -- whether through direct involvement with neighborhood associations or fire district boards, attendance at county commission or school board meetings, or home monitoring of government via the Internet, newspapers and other information sources. Civic engagement is vital to a healthy democracy.

In Florida, Sunshine Week commands extra attention by coinciding with the start of the state Legislature's annual 60-day session. Lawmakers have been both friend and foe to citizen access to public records and even open government.

In fact, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors established Sunshine Sunday, the precursor to the week, in 2002 in reaction to various pieces of legislation that sought new exemptions to the state's public records law, thus hiding information from the people.

Following the first three annual events, some 300 exemptions to open government laws were scuttled because of the heightened public vigilance and concern over news reports detailing the skulduggery.

Other states followed Florida's lead on empowering people to get involved in government at all levels, and the Sunshine event soon expanded to a week.

Journalists around the nation conduct audits of various government agencies to check compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and other open government laws, and then publish accounts of those investigations.

The report cards run the gamut, from easy access to public documents to outright hostility to requests.

Valuable Sunshine resource

Florida is fortunate to have an organization willing and able to expend time and energy to help the public become government watchdogs. The First Amendment Foundation, naturally headquartered in Tallahassee, works diligently on behalf of the public to block bad legislation, lobby lawmakers for good bills and offer citizens assistance with their own FOIA requests and other watchdog efforts.

FAF's website -- www.floridafaf.org -- states the organization's mission as "a highly visible and accessible source of authoritative information, expertise, and assistance to the public and news media. ... to ensure that public commitment and progress in the areas of free speech, free press, and open government do not become checked and diluted during Florida's changing times."

Don't know how to conduct a records search or write a FOIA request? FAF provides that education and training as well as legal aid and information services. The non-profit also offers a FOIA hotline -- 1-800-337-3518. We encourage the public to contact this valuable resource.

In a recent discussion with the Herald Editorial Board, FAF President Barbara Peterson outlined the goals coming up this legislative session.

FAF priorities on target

The organization's highest priority is passage of the measure that gives people the right to speak at state and local government meetings before boards or commissions take any official action, which, Peterson said, is the top complaint received on the hotline.

This bill, which amends the sunshine law, does allow time limits on comments and other reasonable restrictions but does void official decisions that violate this amendment. Odds are good that both HB 23 and SB 50 will be approved.

Florida should designate one agency -- like the attorney general's office -- to enforce the public's right to records and access to meetings. That would allow citizens an avenue outside the courts, thus avoiding the high cost of litigation.

Currently, some agencies charge outrageous and prohibitive fees to fulfill citizen requests for copies of public records. The state should establish an equitable fee structure. And a new law should require redacting software when designing databases.

Greater transparency in state and local government budgets should be required so citizens can easily access financial information and supporting documents on expenditures through one central database portal.

These would all be meaningful additions to Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine law, and we encourage citizens to contact lawmakers to demonstrate their support. When government operates outside the public's scrutiny, bad things can happen.

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

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