Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Public Records, Meetings Embraced | Florida's Sunshine Law Ensures Access to Government Business

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Public Records, Meetings Embraced | Florida's Sunshine Law Ensures Access to Government Business

Article excerpt

MANATEE TIGER BAY

BRADENTON -- As one of the panelists at a Manatee Tiger Bay Club forum on public records and meetings laws, Manatee County Attorney Mickey Palmer polled the audience.

"Raise your hand if you believe Florida's public records act is a generally good thing?" Palmer asked.

Most of the roughly 50 people attending the Thursday program responded affirmatively.

"Raise your hand if you believe that there are citizens out there and lawyers representing those citizens who engage in abusive conduct relative to the public records act?" Palmer continued.

Again, a majority raised their hands -- including two other attorney panelists: Andrea Mogensen, the lawyer for Citizens for Sunshine, which has sued local governments for alleged violations of Florida's 1967 Sunshine Law; and Thomas Shults, who represents Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman in one of those lawsuits.

Citizens for Sarasota claimed Chapman and Commissioner Suzanne Atwell (who settled instead of going to trial) violated Sunshine requirements by attending a private meeting of business owners and others to discuss homeless issues. Circuit Court Judge Brian Iten ruled in Chapman's favor. Citizens for Sarasota filed an appeal, which is pending.

"I submit to you we have a conundrum on our hands," Palmer said. "The public records act, I agree, is a generally good thing. But there are abuses that go on -- serious, serious, shameful abuses."

Palmer cited various cases in Florida that he regards as "predatory public records requests," attempts to trap government officials into appearing to violate the Sunshine Law -- such as a demand for all of the records that were on the desk of the police chief of the city of Gulf Stream at a particular hour on a particular date.

"Sure, there are abuses in every area of law," Mogensen said, citing personal injury litigation as an example. Because a small fraction of attorneys and their clients may abuse a law, "that doesn't mean we throw out the law."

Mogensen said she regards Florida's Sunshine Law as essential for "government by the people, of the people." It entitles the media and the public to get information. …

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