The best disinfectant for a corrupt government always has been sunshine.
It is Sunshine Week in Florida — a celebration and a reminder of this state’s open records law known collectively as the Sunshine Laws. Essentially, emails and other written communication about the public’s business should be preserved by the politicians and their staff and released to the public upon request. The idea also applies to meetings so that school boards, city and county commissions, and others are required to debate and decide on the public’s business in an open meeting and in front of their constituents instead of in a closed, back room.
Florida has, perhaps, the best and strongest public records laws in the nation, but far too often, government officials fail to follow the law. However, the spirit of the law won’t truly be honored in this state as long as government officials ignore records requests or are able to create obscene obstacles to prevent the public from obtaining public records.
The News Herald and our sister paper, the Northwest Florida Daily News, joined newspapers across the state in performing an audit of compliance with the law. For the most part, various agencies did what they were supposed to do and provided the requested records in a timely manner and for a reasonable price.
“Of the 45 Florida agencies or public officials contacted by newspapers, all but a few responded quickly and some even provided records immediately and for free,” according to an Associated Press article that appeared in Sunday’s News Herald.
Unfortunately, of the three officials or agencies that did not respond or acknowledge some portion of the requests within two weeks, two of them — the Okaloosa County Administrator and the Walton County Administrator — were in Northwest Florida.
Officials in Lynn Haven, the State Attorney’s Office for the 14th Judicial Circuit, the Panama City Police Department and Bay District Schools all complied with the law.
However, officials across the state did their best to block the public from viewing “their records.”
An attempt to obtain Duval County Superintendent Nikolai Vita’s emails from early January would cost a member of the public an estimated $1,485. The Lee County school system wanted $438 for Superintendent Nancy Graham’s emails from the same January week.
Also, it apparently pays good money to be an email reviewer for the government. Duval officials wanted $21.53 an hour for an employee to review only 53 emails every 60 minutes. Lee officials wanted $26.6 an hour for someone to look at 121 emails an hour at a time.
Both those figures are nonsense and go a long way to prove that more should be done to put the onus on government officials to make their records available to the public at little or no charge. What if every official email was simply put online and available to be searched immediately after receipt? That would do away with this problem.
Consider this clear violation of the law: When a journalist made a request last year to have every Broward County sheriff’s deputy’s emails searched for gay slurs over a five-month period, he was told it would cost $399,000 and would require four years’ worth of work and a dedicated staffer.
Given our experience gathering public records, we can assure you that if he had made the same records request but instead asked for positive examples that would make the department look good, he would almost assuredly have been given the records quickly and for free.
Also, even the fact that most of the agencies complied with the law is a bit of misnomer. Agencies work with journalists frequently and often comply with their requests easily. However, in our experience, when a member of the public who has no affiliation with the media makes similar requests, he is often stymied and bullied.
Florida’s public records law is designed to ensure our government is acting in our best interests, and in the best interest of every Floridian, our Legislature should protect and expand the law. A good place to start would be to define the reasonable costs an agency can claim when they fulfill a request.
It may not be cheap to review every email at a sheriff’s office for a five-month period, but it is also surely not worth $399,000.
Original article here.