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Editorial: Access to Florida’s public records must be assured

So much for Florida “in the Sunshine.”

A Lakeland man met opposition after filing a public records request to all 67 Florida school districts, the Daytona Beach News-Journal Online reported Tuesday. Public information laws — which basically require that many government documents be available to normal citizens — are commonly referred to as Sunshine Laws.

Businessman Joe Chandler told the News-Journal that his objective was to bring attention to the Florida Records Law. In March 2007, Chandler placed a public records request to obtain the health insurance contracts of a few agencies in Polk County.

Under the Sunshine Laws, anyone can request any public record without having to specify why.

But according to the News-Journal, Polk County refused and it took the state attorney’s involvement for the county to comply.

Chandler is not the only one who has met with resistance.

The Herald Tribune in Sarasota reported Nov. 22 that the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors organized an audit in which volunteers placed public records requests across the state’s school districts, among other government offices. When the information was requested, though, volunteers faced puzzled staffers who questioned the motives behind the requests.

One office went as far as tracking a volunteer, using her license plate, after she placed a public records request. She never identified herself.

Almost 43 percent of offices failed to comply because they required a name, a reason or a written request, according to the Herald Tribune.

USF came under intense scrutiny when the Tampa Tribune sued the University and its then-spokesman Jan. 30 for submitting inaccurate and incomplete information.

The Oracle has also been met with public records request hurdles from the University. On Oct. 28, an Oracle staffer placed a public records request to media relations. More than a month later, part of the request was still not fulfilled.

From these examples, it is clear that Florida’s public institutions are not as sunny as they should be. This situation is inexcusable, and something must be done to resolve it.

The Sunshine Laws were created to address the fears and concerns of citizens and lawmakers alike. Their purpose was the prevention of secrecy and shady dealings. It seems that those who should abide by them, however, are doing plenty to conceal what they claim are just a few random e-mails and memos.

But this secrecy and stubbornness, unfortunately, has done nothing more than raise politicians’ eyebrows.

It is imperative that government offices ensure their staff’s knowledge of the law. Distributing brochures to employees is obviously not enough. Refresher courses or seminars should be conducted, and ultimately, if local offices can’t comply, the state should step in by levying fines.

If reminding local governments about the Sunshine Laws is not enough, then perhaps targeting their pockets is an appropriate solution.