State laws requiring that government conduct its business in public and that the records of official business be available for public inspection are as critical to the functioning of our government as fair elections and a free press.
Consider the ongoing debate about Hillary Clinton’s emails while secretary of state, and ask yourself whether our trust should be placed in a single person with something to gain by controlling the flow of that information, or in a set of laws and procedures that are meant to ensure unfettered access to the official record.
Each year, the news media join with other groups in a national effort known as Sunshine Week to promote the importance of open government and the free flow of information. To kick off the week this year, the Tribune published a story Sunday that chronicled the mixed results reporters faced when requesting government records.
Some encountered undue delays, while others were stymied by ridiculous demands for thousands of dollars in fees to produce an official government record.
Be mindful that the records are maintained by people on the public payroll using equipment bought by taxpayers. They’re our records, and when we want them the path toward securing them should be clear of obstacles.
Floridians are fortunate to live in a state with some of nation’s most generous laws. The state’s public records law, passed in 1909, requires that any record made or received by a public agency be available for inspection unless specifically exempted by a legislative act. And it presumes the record is public, putting the onus on government to prove the document is exempt rather than force the person requesting the record to prove it should be made available.
In 1967, the state enacted “Government in the Sunshine” laws that established your right to attend the meetings of local and state government agencies where the public’s business is being discussed. It requires the agencies to give proper notice before the meeting, and that minutes be taken for the official record. It prohibits members of boards or other agencies acting on their behalf from meeting in private to work out the public’s business behind closed doors.
The popularity of such measures was evident in 1990, when nearly 90 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment putting the Legislature under the aegis of the state’s Sunshine Laws, a vote reaffirmed in 1992 with the overwhelming passage of another constitutional amendment expanding the laws to include the judiciary.
The recent uproar over the firing of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey can be traced to the belief that his ouster was orchestrated by Gov. Rick Scott in a deliberate effort to keep the public from knowing his intentions. If true, that sort of shenanigans is an affront to our established system of operating in the sunshine.
Each year the Legislature considers whether specific records should be exempted from the law. We recognize that some records, such as the personal information of law enforcement members, are legitimately shielded from public view. But there are other measures that are more about the inconvenience of a public record than the harm it may bring by being public. Lawmakers should think twice before pushing any measure that limits access.
So reflect this Sunshine Week on the benefits of living in a state with laws that allow the public and the press to hold the government accountable.
Conducting the public’s business in the sunshine, for all to see, leads to a more stable democracy.
Original article here.