Open-government advocates celebrate ‘Sunshine Week’

10:50 p.m. EST, March 10, 2012|By Anika Myers Palm, Orlando Sentinel

Laura Williams’ interest in public records was born of tremendous personal tragedy: In 1996, her then-husband, who had abused her, killed both their 2-year-old daughter and himself.

In the years that followed, she joined groups that helped domestic-violence victims. And in 2007, she began working with CourtWatch, which uses court records to track domestic-violence, sexual-assault and child-abuse cases in Orange and Seminole counties.

Williams’ active use of open-government laws has made her a member of the Sunshine Brigade, a group of 21 Floridians named by the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. And she is among those celebrating Sunshine Week, a national freedom-of-information observance that starts today.

Florida’sopen-government laws are among the nation’s strongest, ensuring access to most public meetings and records. But not all Floridians realize how much access they have, know how to find records or understand how to use the laws to their advantage. That’s where the foundation and the Sunshine Brigade come in.

“It’s critically important that citizens exercise their right to keep government accountable,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the foundation. The brigade members are “accessing government information, and they’re able to help their fellow citizens do the same.”

Williams, who lives in Winter Park and owns a frozen-yogurt store in Lake Mary, said she generally spends 15 to 20 hours a week gathering information for CourtWatch — although a recent back injury has forced her to cut that time to 10 hours weekly.

“It was a good marriage of my desire to help victims of domestic violence as well as my background with criminal justice,” said Williams, 51, who once worked in a lawyer’s office. “In retrospect, it’s amazing how all those pieces came together.”

CourtWatch monitors records and proceedings of abuse cases to identify patterns of behavior by abusers, victims and judges. Williams also blogs about related issues at courtwatchflorida.blogspot.com.

Her CourtWatch work wouldn’t be possible if Florida didn’t have such open court records, she said.

The Orange County Clerk of Courts website, myorangeclerk.com, is “just phenomenal,” Williams said. “Not too long ago, I was trying to look up something in Los Angeles [on a county clerk's website] and they charged $4.95 just to look up a name.”

For Judy Putz of Longwood, another member of the Sunshine Brigade, a commitment to open government came several years ago, when she was stymied in an attempt to get information from the city of Longwood about a petition that a candidate for city office had filed to get on the ballot.

“The then-city clerk refused to give it to me,” said Putz, 64, who sees herself as a watchdog of Longwood City Hall. She consulted state officials about open-government laws, and the state attorney general eventually weighed in to say that the candidate’s petition was considered a public record. After that, Longwood’s City Commission enacted a policy that gives residents more information about the cost of public-records requests, Putz said.

These days, Putz is pleased with the service she gets from Longwood officials when she seeks records.

“Anybody can walk in at any time and make requests,” she said.

Putz and Williams use open records for very specific reasons, but other citizens can use records to gather information from and about elected officials, check on licenses of trade workers and track government projects.

Floridians who want help using open-government laws can call the foundation at 1-800-337-3518 or visit its website at floridafaf.org.

apalm@tribune.com or 407-420-5022

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