By Dan Moffett
Florida has a long history of strong and effective open government laws that have been the envy of other states.
The Legislature passed its first public records law back in 1909, Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes.
Then in 1967, the state enacted its Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, and with it came most of the access rights to government meetings and records that the public enjoys today.
The Sunshine Law defines public records in broad terms and gives the public wide access to them. Exemptions to the law are relatively few. Here are some important provisions of the statute:
• The definition of public records includes “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software, or other material, regardless of the physical form” connected to the official business of any government agency.
• You don’t have to identify yourself to receive a public record, or make your request in writing, or give a reason for your request.
• For the most part, there is no charge for inspection of a public record, though government custodians can charge a reasonable fee for the actual cost of copying the record.
• A public official who denies a public records request and violates the law can be suspended or removed from office. An intentional violation is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail. An unintentional violation is a noncriminal offense punishable by up to a $500 fine.
• Certain private entities such as some nonprofit groups can be subject to the Sunshine Law when they are doing public work.
• The law requires government boards and commissions to keep their meetings open to the public, give reasonable notice of their meetings, take minutes of the business conducted and ensure that the venues are accessible. Two members of a board, agency or commission who discuss a matter where action is pending can be subject to Sunshine Law requirements.
• People with complaints about Sunshine violations or public records access should contact the state Attorney General’s Office (866-966-7226) or the First Amendment Foundation (800-337-3518), a Tallahassee-based nonprofit group dedicated to protecting the public’s right to open government.
In Gulf Stream, residents Martin O’Boyle and Christopher O’Hare have filed hundreds of public records requests on a variety of issues during the past two years — in all, more than 1,500 petitions between them under the Sunshine Law.
O’Boyle and O’Hare have subsequently filed dozens of lawsuits against the town, alleging that officials withheld information, didn’t comply in a timely manner or overcharged for copying fees.
Gulf Stream officials have countered that the two men are abusing the public records law by making frivolous and sweeping requests to overwhelm staff and punish the town for its stance against their personal issues.