On Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, err on the side of caution

Floridians are blessed with the most expansive open government laws in the nation. While the state's Sunshine Law ensures the public's right of access to most governmental meetings and records, those official entities can encounter difficulties on several fronts.

Slow responses to public records requests elicit sharp criticism for stonewalling. No response to those entreaties can spark lawsuits that can prove costly to government programs and taxpayers.

On another Sunshine issue, meetings deemed to be public must be noticed and open. Official entities cannot misunderstand the rules on open governance, another pitfall that can void proceedings and decisions.

Public engagement in civic affairs is essential to government accountability and oversight. But when private enterprises take advantage of the laws merely to enrich themselves through lawsuits, then something's wrong.

The records conundrum

The Manatee County school district has come under fire for delays on public records requests from both the public and the media. With a recent history of financial mismanagement, spending abuses and lost trust, the district has been under intense scrutiny for years, this year averaging 40 records requests per month and double that figure in October.

That pales in comparison with Manatee County government, which reports approximately 350 requests a month for building and planning department records and another 60 per month for general information records.

But the vocal displeasure with the school district has been most pointed. Long delays in district responses deservedly frustrate both the public and journalists. Explanations from Steve Valley, the district's director of community and family engagement, sound perfectly reasonable -- though in some cases, the justification doesn't fly.

Only one district staff person, Linda Lambert, the public records custodian and an administrative secretary, handles public records requests, but her job is split with other duties. She handles a daunting document task on limited hours.

Outdated technology, requests for old records and the surprising lack of cooperation from school board members and district officials also slow response times, as Herald education reporter Meghin Delaney outlined in a Nov. 9 exposé on district issues with Sunshine.

Valley told the school board last month that the average response to settle requests is two days. Some, however, take far longer -- including one from the Bradenton Herald that took more than a month to complete as the cost became an issue and the scope of the request became narrower.

The Sunshine Law only requires entities act in "good faith" to requests and respond in a reasonable time span. Plus, there are only guidelines on fees agencies can charge.

That gives governments leeway in dealing with the Sunshine Law.

The overarching problem with the school district is the part-time commitment toward fulfilling these requests.

The story is quite the opposite at Manatee County, not unexpected given the far higher volume of records requests. Assistant County Attorney Robert M. Eschenfelder told this Editorial Board the county "runs a tight ship" and "empowers staff to do it right" with education programs.

Records Division Manager Debbie Scaccianoce works full time on requests alongside two support staff. Most requests, she said, "are turned around very quickly" with complicated ones taking longer.

The school district should place a higher priority on fulfilling these entreaties quicker to satisfy the public's right to know.

Public notice of meetings

The Manatee County school district ran afoul of state law by failing to publicly notice the meetings of the citizen advisory committee considering a school security contract.

Those meetings should have been open to the public but were not advertised as such. That regrettable mistake cost the district $10,775 in an October settlement with Citizens for Sunshine, which uncovered the mistake and sued.

The district had to cancel the contract with a Sarasota company, as the law prescribes.

Unlike some Sunshine lawsuits, that one was justified -- though we would have preferred the organization not take money out of taxpayers' pockets and education.

District staff must be fully versed in all the requirements of Sunshine to avoid such a grievous mistake in the future.

Exposing entrapment

Mitchell Teitelbaum, the Manatee school district's staff attorney, told this Editorial Board that he has been in contact with colleagues across the state about the fishing expeditions that legal firms will launch against numerous school systems. Those firms will hit dozens with the same public records request, hoping to ensnare some in public records lawsuits that gain them thousands of dollars in legal settlements.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting exposed this despicable practice in a detailed report published on Nov. 11 in the Herald. In one partnership, the misnamed Citizens Awareness Foundation and the O'Boyle Law Firm in South Florida, working in concert with Our Public Records LLC, prey on state and local government agencies and businesses by seeking public records and suing for failures to comply. Just since January, these predatory associates have filed more than 140 lawsuits in 27 counties -- with three in Manatee County, against the school district, Manatee Glens and the Team Success charter school.

One appalling email exposed these associates for what they is, an unholy alliance focused on greed. The foundation established a quota to refer 25 lawsuits per week -- the minimum -- to the law firm. This has nothing to do with the good intentions of Sunshine but everything to do with the bad exploitation of state law.

The Legislature should address this post haste.

Manatee County has not been victimized by disreputable lawsuits, at least not in the 14 years Eschenfelder has served on the attorney's staff. The county won one against Citizens for Sunshine last year, and another remains in the legal system.

The school district cannot afford to let any request to fall through the cracks, lest a lawsuit be forthcoming. The county's enviable Sunshine record should serve as a model for the district.