August 21, 2014

open goverment

State Getting Tough on Open Record Violators

A state commission is working to put teeth into enforcement of Florida's open record laws.

Amy Keller | 12/1/2008

Sandy D’Alemberte
“What surprised me was that some of the government violations are so blatant even though we have had these laws for years and have made concerted education efforts.”
— Sandy D’Alemberte

Other journalists told the commission similar tales: Pat Yack, former editor of the Florida Times-Union, described how members of the city council frequently gathered outside of City Hall for “private, secret meetings” for which they issued no notices, no agendas and no minutes. Bob Gabordi, executive editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, described how some public and university officials and government employees avoid using their own e-mail accounts. Instead, they use their secretary’s or assistant’s e-mails so that when reporters request copies, “they can honestly say, ‘This is all we have.’ ”

Valuable business tool

While the media is the most obvious user of Florida’s open meetings and public records law, citizens use them every day for a variety of purposes. Consumers can use online databases to check out a physician’s background, including their medical training, professional credentials and any disciplinary actions against them. Parents can check to see if a sex offender lives in their neighborhood. Businesses also rely on Florida’s Sunshine Law for everything from criminal background checks to finding out detailed corporate information on competitors.

Court records — like judgments, liens and bankruptcy records — can also provide valuable information when companies are considering business deals with individuals or other companies. The real estate industry relies extensively on public records to conduct title searches, to establish whether there are liens on a property and to research property transactions.

The state generally gets high marks for openness and transparency. But members of the commission hope that a few tweaks and changes to the law will help. “We can’t just say we’re good at open government — we have to see it through,” says Paula Dockery, a state senator from Lakeland who sits on the commission.

The commission is pushing to put teeth into enforcement of the state’s open records laws. Presently, if anyone sues an agency for violating the public records law and wins, the court must award attorney fees and court costs. The commission is recommending that the court be allowed to award additional damages if it has shown that the agency intentionally disregarded the citizens’ constitutional rights or if there was a repeated pattern of abuse.

D’Alemberte says he came up with the idea because government agencies “hate” paying attorney fees. “I thought if they had to pay some kind of special assessment if the court, in addition to finding a violation of the Sunshine Law, found a pattern of abuse, then that would really give incentive to people to clean up their act.” The collected fees would then be used to enhance public access to public meetings and public records.

To further encourage compliance, the commission is also suggesting that the law be amended to give citizens an opportunity to seek advice from the Office of Open Government in making public records requests.

Meanwhile, Lozman and his dog still live at Slip 452, but the city is moving forward with a new plan to overhaul the city marina properties, and he’s waiting to see how that plays out. He’s also busy with a new lawsuit he filed in September against the mayor and city council. Lozman says the local officials failed to provide reasonable notice of a special meeting where they decided the terms of a severance package for Riviera Beach’s former city manager. Lozman’s suit says the 8½-by-11-inch piece of paper posted less than 24 hours before the meeting on a bulletin board outside City Hall “failed to convey the significance of the dollar value of the settlement.”

Tags: Politics & Law, Big Bend, Government/Politics & Law

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