Op-Ed: Fort Pierce Incident Illustrates Importance of Sunshine Week, Continued Public Vigilance

St. Lucie County resident John Bailey wanted to know the benefits paid to public employees. So he made a public records request for tax records of those making $50,000 or more among the various government bodies in the county, including the city of Fort Pierce.
 
Initially, the city wanted to charge Bailey $3,000 for the information. It then offered to charge him about $314, but only for a list of the employees making salaries of $50,000 or more rather than the actual tax forms. Bailey agreed, but then filed a complaint after receiving far different responses from other agencies.
 
Bailey’s complaint was forwarded to the State Attorney’s Office, which investigated and found the city had violated state public records law in how it handled his request.
 
According to the investigation, it took the city from Aug. 31 to Nov. 16 last year to respond to Bailey’s request and had charged him an employee’s overtime costs for fulfilling the request, even though the employee is salaried and not eligible for overtime pay. The city refunded Bailey about $114.
 
“I thank the state attorney for conducting a thorough and prompt investigation and for taking my complaint seriously,” Bailey said. “There is a mindset at the city of Fort Pierce to find ways not to comply with public records requests that involve financial information. This was demonstrated to me when my requests for similar information from the county, the school and fire districts, the five county constitutional officers and the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority all complied within 48 hours with electronic files and charged me nothing.”
 
Bailey’s case is an example of how not to do business under Florida’s open government laws. And, it serves as a reminder to other government bodies and to the public that public records don’t belong to the governmental bodies or their staff members, but, indeed, to the public, which must have prompt and reasonable access to that information.
 
It’s also a reason why special attention is given annually by newspapers in Florida and across the nation to the critical role the free flow of information plays in maintaining an informed citizenry and holding government accountable in a democratic society.
 
Today is Sunshine Sunday, begun nine years ago by the Florida Society of News Editors and the First Amendment Foundation. It became Sunshine Week and went national in 2005 through the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
 
As part of Sunshine Week in Florida this year, anonymous e-mails were sent to sheriffs, school superintendents and county administrators in each of the 67 counties asking for a list of all employees and their salaries in 2010. Of those responding, 86.5 percent complied with the public records law, a considerable improvement over previous years when fewer than half complied with the requests as required by law.
 
That may be in part because information technology should make the retrieval and distribution of public information faster and easier.
 
Still, anything less than 100 percent compliance is unacceptable in a state which long has been a model for other states in its open government laws.
 
In the wake of the investigation by the State Attorney’s Office, the city of Fort Pierce has said it will change its policies regarding the production of public records to better comply with state laws.
 
But, in many cases, the problems citizens have obtaining public records have less to do with the law and policies, and more to do with the attitudes of those in government who sometimes simply don’t want to be bothered with requests or would prefer the information they have not become known to the public.
 
But, that’s why laws are in place to protect the public’s right to access meetings and records, and why there must be constant vigilance at the state level so lawmakers don’t weaken those laws and reduce the openness and accountability that are essential to honest government.