Op-Ed: Don’t let secrecy eclipse your rights

Today, Sunshine Sunday, is the first day of Sunshine Week, marking the importance of open government.

Sunshine Week reminds us that the interests of the news media in getting information about government are the same as the interests of the people.

Under Florida law, the right to attend meetings and read and copy public documents are not media rights, but citizen rights.

We can’t perform one of our central missions, and the general public can’t hold its government accountable unless meetings and records are readily accessible.

In Florida, Sunshine Week coincides roughly with the start the annual general session of the Legislature, which invariably includes efforts  to chip away at Florida’s open-records and open-meetings laws – some of the strongest in the country.

This year is no exception, and open government issues loom large in Tallahassee, especially with the arrival of Gov. Rick Scott, who has no past government experience.

But the principles of open government apply with equal importance to local government.

In Southwest Florida, the news is mixed.

Sunshine Review, an advocate for open government, has named Lee County among the 112 winners nationwide of “Sunny Awards,” for government websites that exceed transparency standards.

Indeed, lee-county.com is excellent, especially in its comprehensive access to documents.

Good government websites help not only the professional media but any citizen seeking information for personal or political reasons, or “citizen journalists” preparing news or opinion.

Mike Barnhart, President of Sunshine Review, said:  “Access to information empowers every citizen to hold government officials accountable. Official accountability is the cornerstone of self government and liberty.”

In their government watchdog roles, our reporters have had mixed experiences.

For example, the county attorney’s office said last month that it would cost $500 to comply with a request for County Manager Karen Hawes’ phone records, in part because it would take her three hours at $90 an hour to review them.

Hawes said it would take 15 minutes.

County reporter Brian Liberatore says Hawes is routinely good on public records, saying “she goes above and beyond.”

The News-Press recently asked school districts in Lee, Collier and Brevard counties for the same personnel information.

Lee estimated the request would take 50 hours of staff time at a cost of $782.

It took Brevard schools all of 55 minutes to pull the same data at a cost of $49, while Collier provided the information free of charge. Unreasonable charges for staff time are a way for officials to try to quash efforts to get public documents.

While this is allowed under the  law, it offends the spirit of free access.

Health reporter Frank Gluck found that persistence pays when he sought records last year on management bonuses in Lee Memorial Health System, which usually does not fight records requests.

“When we … requested the information,” Gluck says, “system lawyers argued that these payouts are private compensation and not subject to public review. We disagreed because the system is a tax-exempt, governmental entity. Eventually, after several weeks of legal talks with them, they released the information.

“They haven’t challenged similar requests since then.”

All of us need Florida’s tough open government laws. Urge our leaders in Tallahassee not to undermine them.

-   The News-Press, Fort Myers, Fl., Sunday, March 13, 2011