Without open meetings and accessible records, we’d all be in the dark.
BY AMINDA MARQUES GONZALEZ
We simply couldn’t tell the stories readers count on us to report without Florida’s public records and open meetings laws, among the strongest in the country.
Our journalists rely on these laws daily, whether attending a municipal meeting or digging out records on how an abused child fell through the safety net.
Government-in-the-Sunshine laws guarantee access not just to reporters, but to everyone.
Sunday marks the start of Sunshine Week, calling attention to the importance of open government. It began in 2002 in Florida, after some legislators tried to create dozens of exemptions to the public records law. In response, the Florida Society of News Editors organized a Sunshine Sunday.
These laws are a vital tool in our effort to be your eyes and ears:
• For our investigative series examining assisted living facilities, reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Michael Sallah pulled thousands of records. They included inspections and complaint investigations by the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, the sole regulatory agency for ALFs, a decade of complaints filed with the state Department of Elder Affairs ombudsman program and other records that included police reports, death certificates and autopsy reports. A key to the project: the state’s secret archives, confidential records showing abuse and neglect deaths at ALFs since 2002.
• The Herald has had to go to court several times in the past year to compel the release of records related to the death or abuse of children. In February 2011, Nubia Barahona was found dead in the flatbed of her adoptive father’s pickup. To report the details of her death, the paper went to court four times either to seek the opening of court proceedings or to force the release of records.
• For a three-part series on bloated government pensions and salaries, reporters Dan Chang and David Smiley homed in on eight of the largest cities in our coverage area. Over six months, they requested pension data from each individual city. Each had its own method of maintaining the information. It often took two to three requests — and considerable expense — to finally get the full documentation.
Using the shield of the current Sunshine laws requires persistence, time, money —- and occasionally an attorney. This makes it all the more imperative that we remain vigilant against efforts to make Florida any less sunny.