MANATEE — Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.”
Access to that currency of information has been the right of Floridians since 1909, when the Legislature passed what was to become known as the Public Records Law.
To highlight the importance of open government and freedom of information, this week has been designated Sunshine Week.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors has promoted Sunshine Week nationally with funding from a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami challenge grant.
Florida was the first state to begin promoting Sunshine Week when, in 2002, the Legislature attempted to impose multiple restrictions to the Open Records Law in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee have organized Citizen Sunshine Brigades, or activists from around the state, to answer questions through e-mail on access to government records.
Theo Karantsalis, a reference librarian at Miami-Dade College, will serve as one of those Citizen Sunshine Brigade members.
Karantsalis said he has been passionate about public access to government records for more than 20 years.
“It’s important to keep information free and accessible to all,” he said.
Many people are not aware of their right to obtain public records, Karantsalis said, so they would seek help from the library.
He said he addressed a group of students who were seeking criminal records, and they were shocked when he told them that information was available.
The Legislature has long made obtaining public records in Florida simpler with the enactment in 1967 of the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
According to the Florida Attorney General’s Web site, a request for public records does not have to be in writing or disclose the reason for the request.
The government custodian of the public record must honor the request in a timely manner.
People not only have access to most government records — there are a few exemptions — but also have the right to attend most meetings of governing bodies of state and local governmental agencies or authorities.
“The Sunshine Citizen Brigades are a way to get citizens to help citizens,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. “People should have their government accessible.”
Petersen said Florida has one of the best open government laws in the country.
“It’s a right in our state Constitution,” she said. “The tradition of public access goes back to our Founding Fathers.”
Sunshine Week always falls around March 16, the birth date of President James Madison and National Freedom of Information Day, Petersen said.
Each municipality has a clerk who is the custodian of its records. Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court R.B. “Chips” Shore is responsible for maintaining public records for the courts and Manatee County government agencies.
“All the records we hold are the public’s records,” Shore said, “so the public should have free access to all that are not exempt. This makes for a freer and more effective government.”
Shore has been a leader among the state’s county clerks in making public records available on the Internet.
“The easier it is to get them the better,” he said.
Ernest Marshall, a local attorney, has had years of experience in requesting public records, having served as president of the Federation of Manatee County Community Associations.
Marshall also has served as city attorney, prosecutor and councilor for the sheriff, and has had to advise government officials on providing public access to records.
He said he has not had any problems when requesting records, but suspects some individuals may because of their lack of knowledge of the system.
“The average Joe is not poking around like attorneys or reporters,” Marshall said, “but without the freedom of the press and the Sunshine Laws, our hands would be tied.”
Another local attorney, David Miner, has a long history of requesting documents from Manatee County school district officials.
“The Sunshine Laws are a great idea,” said Miner, who was a candidate for the school board, “but the idea of the laws is that the public should have easy access to know how their money is spent, and not have to jump through hoops.”
Carl Nudi, government reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7027.