Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, enacted in 1967, once served as a national model for the public's right to access to government meetings and records.
But that sterling record of transparency and accountability comes under attack year after year when the Legislature adopts exemptions and places certain records under lock and key.
Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week across the country. Last year, the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week, hundreds of news organizations, lawmakers, schools, libraries, civic organizations and others celebrated the week in innovative and productive ways.
The annual celebration of access to public records is a reminder that citizens must be ever vigilant over government to ensure tax revenue is properly spent, documents are open for inspection and officials act with integrity and serve the public.
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State residents also have Florida's First Amendment Foundation to thank for being an attentive watchdog and bulwark of the public's rights.
Exemptions keep growing
During this year's legislative session, only 11 exemptions passed out of 74 bills filed that would create or reenact exemptions, though some of those measure were companions to bill filed in the other chamber.
Last year, 13 new exemptions became law out of the 50 sought. The total grows year after year, with 22 exemptions in 2014 and 12 in 2013. Over the past two decades, more than 230 entered the books.
This year, possibly the worst idea to enter the battle over public records became much improved after spirited debate. Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, filed a bill that would have virtually eliminated the only weapon the public wields to seek redress when officials breach Florida's public records law.
The only recourse is a lawsuit to force government officials to produce records, but the law allows plaintiffs' attorneys to collect legal fees when they prevail in the suit.
Steube's bill would have changed one word in that law, from stating courts "shall" award legal fees when governments are found to have withheld records illegally to "may."
Legal fees -- in taxpayer dollars -- are presumed to be motivation for government compliance with the law and an incentive for lawyers to take cases when officials fail to serve the public in a timely and complete manner. That change would have discouraged public records lawsuits and insulated constitutional violations. Attorneys would decline such cases since the payment of legal fees would be uncertain.
Wiser minds prevailed. Steube's original bill aimed to crack down on a cottage industry of frivolous lawsuits based on deceitful public records requests made to prompt a violation.
That sound public policy goal remains in the amended measure. The language now states judges shall award attorney fees except in two specific cases:
The civil action or request for the public record is frivolous, malicious or reasonably appears to have been intended to harass the agency or for the explicit purpose of filing a lawsuit.
Any alleged delay or error in making the public record available is a technical violation and would be considered harmless in those circumstances.
In those cases, the amended bill mandates that judges "shall not" award attorney fees.
The First Amendment Foundation found the new measure agreeable, but without the organization's lobbying -- along with dozens of citizens speaking against the original bill during legislative meetings -- Florida may have been saddled with the unintended consequences of a simple change to "may" and a disincentive to civil actions to compel compliance.
Citizen activism vital
While the Senate passed the amended bill, it languished in a House committee. Still, this exercise in citizen activism is instructive about the vital impact of watchdogs.
The Sunshine laws and the public's rights must be protected.
Custodians of records at all levels of government should be fully versed in the Sunshine laws. Last year, elected officials at the highest level of state government proved culpable of breaking those.
Gov. Rick Scott lost a lawsuit that claimed he circumvented state public records laws by employing private email accounts to conduct public business. The legal fees cost taxpayers more than $228,000.
Scott and the Florida Cabinet agreed to settle an open meetings lawsuit when they let staff operate in private -- without a public discussion or vote -- in the ouster of the former Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner. The legal fees amounted to more than $225,000.
These egregious cases demonstrate the value of Florida's Sunshine laws. Nobody can flaunt the law, even the governor.
Watchdogs can never rest.