It was a small thing, or so it seemed. Santa Rosa County Commissioner Bob Cole talked with a fellow member of Milton’s Downtown Redevelopment Advisory Board about a board nomination before a Jan. 15 meeting got underway. Because the discussion didn’t take place in an open meeting, it occurred “out of the sunshine” — that is, outside Florida’s open-government sunshine law.
Public officials should discuss public business in public forums. This helps ensure that taxpayers have full access to government decision-making. After all, it’s usually taxpayers who pay for whatever decisions are made.
Mr. Cole might pay, too, for his ill-timed conversation. State Attorney Bill Eddins considers it a noncriminal violation of the sunshine law. The commissioner faces a possible $500 fine.
Like Mr. Cole’s misstep, most sunshine law violations start out as small things.
Municipal, county and state offices often are asked to provide public records. Some want to charge fees for the time it takes to find the records and delete exempted information. No big deal? Consider this: Duval County officials said they could review 3,400 of their school superintendent’s emails … for $1,485. A mother seeking documents about her daughter’s death was told retrieving the records would cost $179,000.
Charging outrageous fees for access to public records is just another way of keeping them hidden.
Some government offices simply drag their feet or don’t have the processes in place to handle the requests properly. Recently, nine Florida newspapers (including this one) emailed 40 state agencies or public officials with records requests. Most replied within two weeks.
Three did not: Okaloosa County’s administrator, Walton County’s administrator and the 4th Judicial Circuit state attorney’s office in the Jacksonville area.
Kudos to local officials who recognized the lapse, owned up to it and told reporter Katie Tammen they will ensure future requests are handled with more care. After all, prompt responses to records requests are an essential part of open government.
Access to public information is a focus of this year’s Sunshine Week, March 15-21, during which the press highlights open-government issues. Florida clearly still has a few.
Original article here.