Op-Ed: Unfettered access is more than just a press issue

Rise and shine.

Today is Sunshine Sunday, an annual observance of the everyday importance of open-government laws and practices, especially in Florida.

The occasion is so important that it has blossomed into the start of Sunshine Week.

Our state’s 102-year-old legal foundation of the people’s right to know about the people’s business sets the pace for the rest of the nation: “All state, county and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection of any citizen of Florida and those in charge of such records shall not refuse this privilege to any citizen.”

The Sunshine State is aptly named.

Our favorite parts of the annual observance:

n Pointing out the importance of the public’s right to know about the public’s business.

n Reminding everyone that the press enjoys no special access to files and meetings beyond that of anyone else, so we all have a stake in letting maximum sunshine in. When any of us gets rebuffed, all of us get rebuffed, and it gets harder to get access next time.

We are happy to report that this year, or so it seems to us, there are fewer egregious examples of public officials stonewalling the press and public.

There are more examples of a better understanding on both sides about what Sunshine Laws mean — and that they indeed are laws.

We might not always like what we read, see and hear as a result of public files being made public, but is always better for the public to read, see and hear for itself.

We have access to records about public finances, policy and negotiations — and among whom — regarding Jackson Laboratory. When someone thinks there may be more correspondence than meets the eye, a lawsuit to uphold the law to its fullest can be and has been filed.

We see videos — yes, they are public records, too — of law enforcement officers engaged in high-speed chases and hitting a pedestrian walking a bicycle across a busy, dark road.

Public records gave the public access to knowledge of dirty drinking water at a school when Collier County Public Schools officials were not talking.

There are 911 audiotapes for us to track how calls for help are handled.

We get to look inside the Florida State University student discipline program and see what FSU and the NCAA wanted to keep secret.

Daily crime reports and periodical reports of grades in public schools? Think sunshine.

Sales prices of local real state? Open for all.

Who attends and who skips important board meetings? Everybody, even those who aren’t there for themselves, can see.

How open and accessible is the new governor, Rick Scott, to the press? That is not a Sunshine Law issue.

How about a public servant asking why you want a copy of a particular document? That is a Sunshine Law issue.

Florida Gulf Coast University, which enjoys a good track record of respect for sunshine, was prepared to fully air faculty contract talks when they hit an impasse — and were ultimately settled.

We cringe when we hear of a local government body moving to further limit the time allotted to each speaker at meetings.

We cheer when a public official such as Collier Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock holds a public seminar, or a whole series of them, on how to access the often high-tech maze of public records.

An informal poll of our staff this year shows generally favorable reviews for FGCU, Edison State College, Collier schools, Collier County and the city Naples. There is room for improvement with the Lee Clerk of Courts posting and copying files already on hand; questions to Lee schools can be met with a scolding to go to the right place on a website.

Of special note is a report from Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation. She is one of the most fierce public-records users and watchdogs, and she reports far less difficulty with agencies than in the past.

Our bottom line each year is the same: Sunshine Laws are there for a reason — access and accountability. Smart public officials — who know they are public servants and understand the value of transparency — look for ways to embrace rather than avoid sunshine’s cleansing powers.

Our sunshine laws are not in place for the press. They are in place for all of us.

Yet, the public’s “right to know’’ is not automatic. We have to be aware of that and be prepared to defend it. It is only as sure and open as we fight for it to be.

Thank you for your support, and happy Sunshine Sunday.

This is just the beginning of Sunshine Week. If you know of a sunshine story, for better or for worse, that merits special attention, please write or call Editorial Page Editor Jeff Lytle at jlytle@naplesnews.com or 263-4773.