Op-Ed: Open to the public

Accessible government requires vigilence and diligence

Floridians are lucky to live in a state that values open government. Florida has some of the strongest laws designed to ensure that government is conducted in the open, and that everyone has a right to access the meetings and records that inform public decisions.

Today, Florida observes Sunshine Sunday to celebrate this tradition of openness and to remind everyone, whether public official or ordinary citizen, that open government requires vigilance and diligence. Every gathering as defined by law as a public meeting must be open and all public records should be readily accessible.

Yet a recent effort to obtain records concerning a personnel matter in North Port illustrates the difficulties that can be encountered when a public records request is made. Acting on behalf of the city, its contracted attorney oversaw the selection of an arbitrator to handle the reinstatement request from a 911 operator, who was fired after mishandling an emergency call. Ultimately, the operator got her job back and received a year’s pay.

It has been learned that the arbitrator who ultimately decided the case had represented union interests in a number of cases, raising the specter of a possible bias against management. However, the file requested by the Herald-Tribune included no notes on any research the law firm conducted before hiring an arbitrator — even though the city was billed for 11 hours of legal work. When questioned about this lack of documentation, the city’s attorney first said he did not think the notes were public record; then he said he has an excellent memory and thus had no reason to take notes.

Another troubling aspect of this incident is that the newspaper was charged $800 to obtain the case file, a sum that would be a deterrent for many individuals or groups with far less means than the Herald-Tribune.

A Pocket Guide to Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Laws, prepared by the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, points out that “no fees designed to recoup the original cost of developing or producing the records may be charged.”

The guide also states: “Agencies are permitted to provide copies of public records without charge.” Reasonable fees based on actual costs incurred are allowed, but no public record should cost so much that it discourages the public from having access to it.

North Port City Commission Chairman Jim Blucher said he will look into the lack of notes included in the case file. That’s good; we hope the city will also review its practices and procedures related to the costs of accessing documents.

The Herald-Tribune and other media outlets are accustomed to dealing with roadblocks to public records. But this story illustrates the difficulty that can be faced by anyone who is trying to make sense of government decisions.

There are, of course, circumstances in which records or information can be withheld — at least temporarily. In some of those instances, the public good is served, so long as documents and such are eventually made public before decisions are made.

Unfortunately, the state Legislature that is responsible for open-government statutes continues to exempt itself and its members from the laws that provide access to other state agencies and local governments. Most of those exemptions warrant repeal.

As former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson once said, “Government ought to be all outside and no inside.”

Florida’s voters and its best leaders have seen fit to make this state a model for accessible government and, for the most part, have turned back attempts to weaken the laws. It is vital that this tradition be upheld today and in the future.

Florida’s voters and its best leaders have seen fit to make this state a model for accessible government and, for the most part, have turned back attempts to weaken the laws. It is vital that this tradition be upheld today and in the future.

Sunshine government

“Every citizen has been granted the constitutional right to inspect or copy any public record with some exemptions in Florida, and the Sunshine Law provides a right of access to government proceedings at both the state and local levels,” according to the Government in Sunshine website at myflsunshine.com.

The website states that Floridians have the right to:

Inspect and copy public records at any reasonable time, under reasonable conditions, and under the supervision by the custodian of the public records.

Request public records without having to show identification, without saying why the records are wanted, and without making a request in writing.

Request an estimate for the time and costs involved in producing a public records request.

Ask for a written statement of the statutory basis for denying access to public records.

The right to be present and unobtrusively record public meetings.

“Government in the Sunshine: A Citizens Guide” can be found at http://brechner.org.

Other information is available through the First Amendment Foundation, http://www.floridafaf.org.