Let the sunshine in

Cape Coral Daily Breeze

“A popular government without popular information, or means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

– James Madison

Sunshine Week, built around the birthday of James Madison, father of the Constitution, sponsor of the Bill of Rights, and an author of the Federalist Papers, begins Sunday.

It’s the week when we in the media and other watchdog entities band together to call attention to the continued need for open government.

But it’s not just a media issue.

Far from it.

In Florida, a state with some of the most stringent open meetings and public records laws in the county, the “Sunshine statutes” are the bedrock in which the public’s right to know is entrenched.

What does Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law guarantee?

– All meetings of public boards and commissions must be open.

That means you can attend.

-Reasonable notice of all such meetings must be provided.

That means public officials and those appointed to conduct public business must let you know when and where they will meet.

Closed door sessions, with very limited exception, are prohibited.

-Minutes of all such meetings must be taken.

That means if you can’t attend, you can review the official record.

But there’s more.

Lots more.

The second part of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine statute guarantees access to public records.

How are they defined?

“Public records means all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software, or other material, regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency,” the statute states.

This means you have the right to check documents that tell you the subjects your child’s teacher is qualified to teach.

The right to check arrest records to see if your kid’s coach has been popped for DUI, domestic violence or a drug charge.

The right to check submitted paperwork to see what a developer has planned for that big, vacant property across the street.

The right to see documents that tell you who is giving money to the candidates seeking your vote.

You, not only members of the news media, have the right to easy access to these records and more, thanks to Government-in-the-Sunshine laws.

Open meetings and public records are intended to preclude back-door dealings and machinations, leveling the playing field by putting knowledge where it belongs – in the hands of the people.

Knowledge, very truly, is power.

And it’s not intended to be limited to a few.

As Sunshine Week begins, there is no better time to remember, and defend, the open government laws that have put Florida among the leaders of such legislation across the nation.

We are happy to say in the last year or so we have neither had nor heard of any major issues on the local level.

The most common complaint – at least on the part of government entities that must produce the documents- is that “some people” request “too many” documents taking up “too much” of the agency’s time.

Interestingly enough, elected officials’ requests themselves have not been immune to this grouse.

Let us reiterate: Public records are exactly that – records that belong to the public. Parents have every right to check out the background of the person teaching or coaching their child. Taxpayers can and should peruse records pertaining to public expenditures. Watchdogs absolutely can view mail or e-mail exchanges that disclose the deal-making behind the proposal packaged for public consumption.

We urge continued vigilance.

Open government is a fundamental right, its defense a fundamental duty.

Let the Sunshine in.