Manatee County residents and everyone else interested in local public records and open government enjoy a rare opportunity to track official proceedings thanks to the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller.
Some eight years ago, the Florida Supreme Court granted Manatee County Clerk R.B. "Chips" Shore permission to provide online access to images of documents.
Manatee's pilot program remains unique in this regard as other counties have yet to implement this public service, though 59 of the 67 clerks plan to sometime this year and the others are still writing up plans.
Since this is the 10th anniversary of national Sunshine Week, which was inspired by Florida's ground-breaking program to spotlight open-government awareness years earlier, Shore's office encourages the public to use the easy online access to government and court records here in Manatee County -- at www. ManateeClerk.com.
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Shore's office "aims to promote a healthy dialogue regarding the importance of open government and freedom of information, while also seeking to enlighten citizens on what the government does and why."
That anonymous public electronic access includes many court records, indexes, dockets and other non-confidential documents but not juvenile, probate and family law records.
Adoption and some mental health actions are also confidential.
Probate and family court records can still be reviewed in person at a clerk's office but not online as mandated by the Legislature.
Subscribers to a clerk's database can access those on the web but only after submitting an application and being approved by the clerk. Applicants must provide their name, address, phone number, email address and purpose for accessing the online records.
According to the Manatee County clerk's office, registered users can view everything but expunged and sealed records and the only applicants rejected were those who sent incorrect information.
Don't expect to find Social Security, bank account, credit and debit care numbers on any document. That information and the identity of sexual abuse victims is redacted from reports.
All manner of land records,including deeds, leases, mortgages, tax warrants, bills of sale, lien notices and other documents relating to real or personal property, are all public.
County board meeting minutes and other government documents are available, too, and DVDs and CDs of certain meetings can be purchased.
For taxpayers eager to scrutinize government spending, all those financial records are open to the public. The clerk's website contains handy links, from "popular reports" and comprehensive annual documents to interim financial reports and Port Manatee data.
Thousands of documents are recorded each and every week in Manatee County. Taxpayers should be grateful for a precedent-setting and enlightened advocate for transparency in government.
Under Shore's leadership, the clerk's office operates on a simple principle: The public's interests first, for accountable government.