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Sunshine Law Champion Says Open Government Essential

The First Amendment Foundation is working to build on the legacy of former Florida Governor Reubin Askew, who was a champion of open, ethical government and was one of the most active supporters of the state’s 1967 Sunshine Law.

The organization conducts Sunshine monitoring of state and local government agencies; staffs a Freedom of Information Hotline; and provides Sunshine training seminars. FAF President Barbara Petersen recently conducted one of those training seminars in Pensacola.

During the visit, Petersen spoke to WUWF in broad terms about the state’s open records law and how governments can improve public access.

According to Petersen, access to government information is essential to provide accountability and oversight, and helps citizens understand how government works and how decisions are made.

“We want to know, for example, that our taxes are fairly assessed; that government is not misspending our money and that they’re not giving sweetheart deals to their friends using public resources,” Petersen said.

Among the current high profile cases that are putting the state’s Sunshine Law to the test are two related to Gov. Rick Scott. There’s a lawsuit filed by Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews seeking to get access to public information regarding a land dispute sent via a private email account. Also, there are questions about Gov. Scott’s blind trust, which was set up to avoid conflicts of interest. The issue is whether it meets constitutional requirements for public officials and candidates for office to make a full and public disclosure of their financial interests.

Gaining access to public records isn’t always easy, as governments sometimes throw up barriers such as taking too long and charging too much for information. On the other-hand, citizen requests often can be too broad.

To strike a balance, Petersen says governments should take advantage of advances in software technology to help filter exempt information and also offer to help narrow a search request.

Another way is for governments to post online regularly and routinely requested records such as information about their budgets, information about their payroll. “We call this transparency,” Petersen said. “And, if government is proactive in putting those commonly requested records on their website, so a public records request never needs to be made. I love it when I make a public records request and they say oh, just go to our website, it’s up there.”

The First Amendment Foundation website includes a Report Card on local government website transparency. The websites were judged on criteria including access to budgets/financial information; public meeting schedules, agendas and supporting materials; public records; ease of use; and contact information.

The report card project was conducted last year in connection with the annual “Sunshine Week,” with the assistance of students from the University of South Florida and other institutions.

Locally, Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach were in the top five in the rankings for municipalities. Pensacola received a score of 74 points out of 100, while Fort Walton Beach received 70 points.

Checking the County Score-sheet, Santa Rosa received the highest score of 64 for its website, while Escambia got 58 points and Okaloosa netted 40 points. The region’s smallest county, Walton, received the lowest score of 34.

The average score of 65 counties (Calhoun County has no website, while the 67th county was scored as the city of Jacksonville) was 50 out of a possible 100 points. The average score of the 46 cities surveyed was 52.8.

On the high and low ends, the transparency of a website was directly related to the size and resources of a government. Each of the three lowest-scoring counties (Glades, Liberty and Washington) has fewer than 25,000 people. Similarly, the three lowest-scoring cities (Blountstown, Bonifay and Chipley) are tiny communities in the Florida Panhandle. Calhoun County, whose seat is Blountstown, is the only Florida county that doesn’t have a website.

Conversely, large urban areas had the highest scores. Sarasota and Miami-Dade led the counties with scores of 84 and 81 respectively, while the top city was Jacksonville, with 80 points.

When it comes to Sunshine Law exemptions, lawmakers created 22 new exemptions during the 2014 Florida Legislative Session. “It was the worst, most depressing session I’ve had,” said Petersen, who noted she’s been working for or with the legislature for almost 25 years.

According to Petersen, when F-A-F first published the Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual in 1985, there were about 250 exemptions. She says at last count, there were almost 1,100.

To continue their efforts to uphold Florida’s Sunshine Law, Petersen the First Amendment Foundation’s small staff of three could use more resources, including money and personnel. She says it would be great to hire another attorney to deal with legal matters; currently Petersen IS the legal department. Also, she says social media responses are increasing, so they’d like to have someone handling that aspect of the F-A-F operation.

For more information, visit the Florida First Amendment Foundation website. (floridafaf.org)

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.