Forecast: More Sunshine
Florida, the Sunshine State, has stood for decades as a leader in Government in the Sunshine laws. This week we celebrate Sunshine Week in Florida.
Our open records and open meetings laws have been imitated by other states. But it might be time to quit patting ourselves on the back for this. It might be time to take a close look at a few issues that are not quite exemplary of Government in the Sunshine in our fair state.
Right now, citizens do not have the right to speak at public meetings. You might not know that because all of our local boards allow ample public comment during their public meetings.
But Florida law does not require them to do so. It requires them to allow citizens to attend public meetings and to request public documents, but it does not allow citizens the right to speak at public meetings.
In 2010, this gap in the otherwise widely-touted Florida Sunshine Law was made apparent when two state district courts of appeal determined that there is no specific right to speak afforded by either the Florida Constitution or by state statute. Those cases involved situations where local boards had completely shut down all public comment at meetings.
The Florida Legislature failed to correct this gap in the Sunshine Law in 2011 and 2012. Another attempt is making its way through the House and Senate in Tallahassee this year. (SB 50/HB 23) Failure to guarantee this most basic right of Florida citizens in a participatory democracy is shameful and shows a complete lack of commitment to the concept of Government in the Sunshine. Will the Legislature close this gap this year?
Citizens have the right to request public records of government agencies. The Sunshine Law spells out those rights, including how much citizens can be charged for copies of those records. Inspection of records without copies is usually free.
The catch is, what government agency has what record? When you reach the county and state level, with multiple departments and divisions, it can be difficult to determine who to ask for access to specific public records. There is a bill in the Legislature that would create an easily searched index of public records held by each agency. (SB 1004/HB 1133) Anything that makes it easier to find and access public records benefits open government.
A perfect example of the value of open records will be playing out over the next few weeks.This week Florida Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll resigned suddenly after she was questioned in a federal racketeering probe of gaming centers run by Allied Veterans of the World. A firm Carroll owned did consulting work for Allied Veterans. Authorities allege that Allied Veterans used the veteran cause as a front for gaming parlors that took in $290 million over about 5 years and gave just 2% to charity.
There is a lot more to this story and the details of the probe will come out as reporters across the state spend hours requesting and scouring public records to find the details that are buried within thousands of pages of financial disclosure forms, campaign contribution reports and other public records. Say what you want about the horrible media, their supposed bias and agenda, but know that they are the ones doing the heavy lifting exercising the First Amendment.
Not that you have to be a member of the media to access public records. Anyone can request any public record at any time. You can do so without giving your name or the reason you want the record. They can charge you 15 cents per page if you receive printed copies. They can deny your request only if the record is exempted, but they have to tell you why it was exempt. If you want specific information on how to request records, see floridafaf.org.
Those exemptions to the public records law are always expanding. Each year the Legislature considers additional exemptions proposed by groups who want to do business with the government but feel that they should be able to do so without public disclosure.
So far the 2013 Legislature will consider expanding the public records exemption to include financial statements of companies bidding on projects funded with public money.Another one would exempt email addresses of registered voters. Yet another one would exempt the names of spouses and children of current and former law enforcement personnel. Currently their places of residence, employment and school information are protected. While it might not seem important to reveal this information, it makes it difficult to hold government accountable. How do we know that state contracts are not going to the spouse or offspring of a government employee if we aren’t allowed to determine the names of that spouse or employee?
Each year, defenders of open government-Florida First Amendment Foundation, newspapers and other media-watch closely to keep the public informed and to protect the right of every citizen to know what their government is doing and how they're doing it.
But it's not just media who has the right to this information. Every citizen does.
This week, every week .
This is a great country!