Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Real Appeals Needed for Sunshine Law

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Real Appeals Needed for Sunshine Law

Article excerpt

Floridians are justly proud of our tradition of open government that dates from the first law passed in 1909.

But there is an ugly reality that has come to light in the last few years.

If an agency refuses to provide a public record as required by law, there is no effective appeals process.

That leaves the court system, which is time-consuming and expensive.

In a perfect world of the cynical politician, oversight works best when it's toothless.

A light was shined on a project that was part of the recent Sunshine Week. A group of journalism students from the University of Florida contacted state attorney offices from all court circuits in Florida.

The students sought to find out how many sunshine complaints are made, how many are investigated and how many resulted in legal action.

Here are the results:

- It took an average of 38 days for the state attorney offices to complete the simple requests. One state attorney office quoted a price of $54,700 for fulfilling the request, which it later reduced to zero.

- Some offices said they don't prosecute Sunshine violations or track them.

- There is no way to hold state attorney offices responsible for not prosecuting violations.

- No surprise, finding contact information often is next to impossible.

Barbara Peterson, president of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation, said a state agency should be responsible for enforcing Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

The state of Connecticut has such an agency, called the Freedom of Information Commission.

A citizen may file a complaint with the commission. If the commission finds an agency violated the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act, the commission may take several steps:

- Order the public agency to produce the record that was improperly withheld.

- Impose a fine of from $20 to $1,000 if the agency acted "without reasonable grounds."

- It may declare the agency action null and void.

- It may order the agency to provide relief.

- An appeal of the commission's decision can be made to the state Supreme Court.

The commission was created in 1975 so it has stood the test of time.

One of its roles is to conduct education sessions. The intent, of course, is to see that law be enforced.

But in a state like Florida where enforcement is so weak it is no wonder that ignorance of the law is so widespread.

State attorney offices traditionally don't take the sunshine Law seriously on its own, only as part of broader crimes.

Since the Legislature is unlikely to take up this enforcement proposal, it would be a worthy project for the Constitution Revision Commission. Let the voters of Florida weigh in on enforcement of the law. …

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