‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ without Freedom of Information Day

Ashlyn Adams, Writer

Editor’s Note: The following story was originally run during Sunshine Week 2020 (March 15-21). Sadly, the original story was lost prior to our transition to SNO Sites, our current and excellent hosting partner. The article is rerun here in its entirety. 

In light of Sunshine Week, the WUWF, an NPR affiliate located at the University of West Florida,  partnered with students from the Voyager to gauge whether local government agencies are really as transparent with their public records as laws mandate them to be. 

Sunshine Week is held the week of March 16 in honor of James Madison, who is considered the Father of the Constitution and an advocate for government openness, and celebrates National Freedom of Information Day and the right to a government without secrecy or resistance. 

The Florida Sunshine Law is actually a series of laws, first established in 1995, that protects and guarantees public access to government records at both a state and local level.

So why is Sunshine Week like Christmas to journalists, and why should casual readers care? If the laws are already in place, doesn’t that mean our rights are secure?

Just because citizens have rights does not mean they are being exercised, and Sunshine Week is meant to educate and encourage readers to get out and hold the government accountable for its actions.

Average citizens have the right and the responsibility to hold their elected officials in check, especially if their own taxpayer money is involved. The best way to do this is to test your local offices with a simple records request and ensure they are upholding their duties. 

During the month of February, volunteer West Florida students did just that. 

Students were assigned to various government offices in and around Pensacola, where they were given a simple task: Request a document listing members’ names and their salaries. Determine if the agency passes or fails. 

If the agency produced the records in a timely and cooperative manner, they passed. If the request was met with questioning, pushback, or incompetence, the agency was given an automatic fail, even if records were eventually produced upon further explanation.

The goal was to determine how many local government offices were actually functioning in compliance with the Florida Sunshine Law, which is one of the most extensive in the country and provides the right of access to all public governmental proceedings and documents without undue scrutinization. 

The government agencies visited by UWF students are listed, along with their results:

  • Escambia County Commission: Fail
  • Escambia County School Board: Pass
  • Pensacola City Council: Pass
  • Emerald Coast Utilities Authority: Pass
  • Santa Rosa Island Authority: Pass
  • Century Town Council: Pass
  • Santa Rosa County Commission: Pass
  • Santa Rosa School Board: Pass
  • Milton City Council: Fail
  • Gulf Breeze City Council: Fail
  • Jay Town Council: Pass

Some of the failing results were due to communication issues and inexperience, in the case of the Escambia County Commission. After failing to present the requested records in person or over the phone, County Administration was contacted via email, and things were set to rights.

Ironically, the failed agency’s emails were tagged with the following:

“NOTICE: Florida has a very broad public records law.  Under Florida law, both the content of emails and email addresses are public records.  If you do not want the content of your email or your email address released in response to a public records request, do not send electronic mail to this entity.  Instead, contact this office by phone or in person.”

Other agencies, such as the Gulf Breeze City Council, provided records but requested personal information from the West Florida volunteers, which is unnecessary and considered “pushback.” 

The exercise showed vast improvement from the Sunshine Week of the past, when only one government agency, the Santa Rosa Administration Office, was granted a pass.

The right to access public records is not only for journalists. In the event that something concerns you, know about your rights to public records. 

Here are some tips when requesting public records:

  1. Put the request in writing.
  2. Agree in advance to pay 15 cents per page for copies of records that are only a few pages.

  3.  Ask for a citation to any exemption, and ask for a written explanation of a denial.
  4. Make practice requests, and ask for simpler records initially.
  5. Ask for prompt acknowledgment and response–that’s the law, and you may wish to remind them of the fact.

[You can learn more about the process at the First Amendment Foundation]

While it may not be part of your daily routine to harass your local school board for a copy of their electricity bill, use this week to consider your freedoms. 

It is up to the public to maintain a trustworthy government, and that means knowing and exercising one’s rights. 

If you see something suspicious, demand an explanation. The right is yours.

Sunshine Week may only last for a matter of days, but here in the Sunshine State, freedom is year-round.