Friday, May 29, 2009

Sunshine Law and misleading the Public: Florida's Dirty Secret ... by gimleteye

Under Florida law, government agencies, appointed boards, public officials and legislatures are required to maintain accurate records of all communications and to make them available to citizens in a reasonable time, when requested. The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at UF has a very good website detailing the legal responsibilities of our government. The issue of violating Sunshine Law is a constant irritant between the public and elected officials. It can't be a happy occasion that the issue won't go away for the Republican party of Florida and the recent forced resignation of House Speaker Ray Sansom.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand why government agencies would be reluctant to release information requested under the Sunshine Act that is damaging to powerful public officials like Sansom. It is not a new discovery to me. Having followed the tarnished record of pollution and the environment for many years, I have found that even when Sunshine Act requests are highly specific, it is not unusual for government staff to "scrub the record" before complying. This game of cat-and-mouse never gets reported in the press and is rarely litigated. Who has the money to sue over records that are hidden in files or on computers?

To find the worst forms of abuse in Sunshine Act violations, look for areas of public policy-- like the environment-- where corporate interests weigh more heavily than the public. Along these lines, it was an educational experience trying to pry information from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on data about the widespread use of deep underground aquifers as toxic parking lots for municipal waste. Your government's attitude: screw you.

Another bright example popped up yesterday in The Buzz: the blog published by the St. Pete Times in conjunction with the resignation of the Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom. Yesterday, developer Jay Odom was indicted by a grand jury and Sansom leveled with a perjury charge in connection with a "special appropriation" to Northwest Florida State College for an airport facility that would accrue to Odom's private benefit.

The point: despite repeated requests for public information by St. Pete Times reporters, it was only recently that an email conversation emerged that implicated former Senate President Ken Pruitt in the matter that brought down Sansom. Here is the email:

The St. Pete Times blog writes, "Over the past six months, the Times/Herald has made numerous records requests to the college regarding the project, but that e-mail was not included. Nor were scores of other documents recently turned over to investigators." Senator Pruitt recently announced his intent to step down from Florida politics. The area Pruitt represents, St. Lucie, is one of the hardest hit by the speculative bubble in housing and construction and one of the most polluted in Florida.

This is more than a game of "gotcha". The failure by public agencies to disclose information that is damaging to politicians and their patrons peels back the cover from Florida's dirtiest secret.


Geniusofdespair said...

When you ask for records regularly, like I do, you realize how flawed the system is. I hate that they always try to charge me enormous amounts of money and 99% of what they give you is useless. So, now I give up when I get the estimates...unless you readers want to send me money.

Anonymous said...

You are mixing the "Government in the Sunshine" provisions with the public records act provisions.

The state legislature is specifically exempt from government in the sunshine, which requires substantive meetings between elected officials to be advertised and held in public.

The public records act requires certain public documents to be available for inspection by the public.

Please take note that if an agency fails to provide access to records, you can maintain a suit and collect your legal fees should you prevail.