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Government in the Sunshine, Sort Of
| published March 20, 2015 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review features editor

I remember the good old days when you could actually access public records and read them whenever you needed the information in Florida. The process was governed by something known as Sunshine Laws.

Oops...that's another figment of my imagination that never really happened, according to the Florida Times-Union. Today, some government officials will make excuses, stonewall, postpone your requests, threaten you with exorbitant fees, and otherwise delay, that is until your legal counsel finally backs them in a corner.

A recent statewide audit by Florida newspapers shows that most local and state agencies respond efficiently, and sometimes thoroughly, to numerous record requests. However, the cost to obtain similar records varied widely, while some agencies never even responded.

When government representatives delay requests from television and radio stations, along with newspapers, they are causing trouble for everyone. Your tax dollars pay the salaries of those who refuse access, and then they sit around and laugh because they have inconvenienced somebody. You, as an individual citizen, can only imagine how difficult it is to navigate a bureaucracy and then be faced with massive fees.

Numerous newspapers and private citizens have encountered horrible scenarios. There's the $399,000 quote for five months’ worth of a South Florida police agency's emails for gay slurs (Broward County officials claimed the search would take four years), $45,000 for a database of complaints and disciplinary records involving North Florida police officers, and $700 for Ebola reports in a state that has no documented cases.

The Government in the Sunshine Act was created nationally in 1976, encompassing a number of Freedom of Information Acts which were designed to create greater transparency in government. Florida's version of the legislation was, at one time, considered the most expansive in the United States.

The Sunshine Law is a group of laws guaranteeing public access to state and municipal government records regarding laws, ordinances or transactions conducted by official agencies, according to the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Written documents, maps, recordings, videos, software and emails are public records covered under Florida's Sunshine Law. Some records may be exempt (i.e.: federal records the government designates as nonpublic), or city employees' personal emails sent from a government computer. Another related law is the Florida Open Meetings Law, which allows the public to attend meetings of government bodies, including state agencies, where official acts may take place.

It has been noted that sometimes it takes weeks or months for agencies to provide public records, with a prime example being that it took State Attorney Angela Corey's office four months to provide a staff telephone directory.

The disparity in costs between agencies providing documents can sometimes be explained by the time required to review documents. School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti noted his office has the ability to review 53 of his emails per hour, while another school district estimated it could review 121 emails per hour.

The definition of a public record is also a matter up for discussion. Duval Clerk of Court Ronnie Fussell initially sat on records he deemed personal. It just so happens the emails concerned his decision to stop his staff from conducting courthouse marriages.

Media members routinely seek documents and face issues when dealing with government agencies, but numerous individuals statewide have also begun to face large fees and long wait times, according to Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.

"And it's become more and more of a problem," she said. "You guys make public records requests as reporters, the average citizen typically has a different response, frequently enough to be of concern. We have seen over the years a dramatic increase of the cost of gaining access to public records and an increase in the time for an agency to produce those records."

Local citizen watchdog-gadfly Curtis Lee was awarded $75,000 in damages by an appellate court following a 2009 dispute concerning the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund. Lee asked to review documents that were sitting on a desk at the pension fund office and he was told that privilege would cost $329. The ruling is currently being appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

Petersen assumed when agencies became more computerized that it would become easier and cheaper for the public to obtain records, but it's evidently the complete opposite. And are the high fees and long wait times an intentional strategy to block access?

"I can't say that it's a strategy," she said. "But it's certainly an effective mechanism to thwart our constitutional rights to access. It's a barrier."

Frank Denton, editor of the Times-Union and president of the Florida Society of News Editors, was even less generous concerning the fees and delays.

"Whether the high charges and long delays are deliberate attempts to block reasonable public--and press--access or to generate revenue for the office, they certainly violate the spirit and purpose of the law, which is to allow citizens to inspect their governments," he said. "Public agencies should have built into their staffing and functions the ability to deal with and respond to the public."

Related Thursday Review articles:

Eminent Domain and the Fifth Amendment; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; February 15, 2014.