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Public records law keeps Floridians informed

Ever tried to figure out how our government spends taxpayers' money? Did you imagine that the state has streamlined the process of discovery to help you become an aware and knowledgeable citizen? It has not. At least not yet.

There are a few websites in Florida designed to help you find answers to your questions. For example, the chief financial officer maintains a website, Sunshine Spending,, which is intended to help citizens hold state government accountable by posting online information about expenditures to every vendor receiving state funds. Sounds promising, huh? In actuality, the website provides very little useful information.

I looked up money paid to the First Amendment Foundation and found that the FAF — listed twice as two different organizations with two different vendor identification numbers — was paid a total of $5,461.13 in 2010. For what? The website doesn't contain any information about the purpose of the expenditure, nor are there links to contracts, payment vouchers, or anything that might give you any information about the expenditures.

Instead, the site instructs us to call the relevant agency for more information — in the case of the payments made to the foundation, this would mean phone calls to 27 different agencies, a task that could easily take days.

Let's think back a couple of years. Do you remember the uproar over revelations that then-Speaker Ray Sansom had, as the chief budget writer in the House, steered $35 million in extra construction funds to Northwest Florida State College? But enter Northwest Florida State College in the Sunshine Spending vendor query box and check for funds received in 2008 or 2009, and you come up with nothing. Nada.

Now we all know that the college received money, a lot of money, during Sansom's years as House budget chief, but Sunshine Spending doesn't provide any guidance on how — or where — to find out exactly how much money the college received.

For that information, you need to go to the Legislature's website, Transparency Florida, Although it is not the easiest website to navigate and a bit wonkish for the average person, I was able to find out that Northwest Florida State College received an appropriation in fiscal year 2008-09 of $29 million; the college's appropriation dropped to $22 million in 2009-10; and a measly $3.5 million in fiscal year 2010-11. So where's that additional $35 million Sansom sent its way? Your guess is as good as mine.

All of which brings me to my point — the difference between government transparency and access to government information. Transparency and access are two sides of the same coin perhaps, but are different in a fairly fundamental way: Transparency is, generally, financial information that government provides us either willingly or because state or federal law requires disclosure.

On the other hand, access laws give us the right to demand the disclosure of information from our government. In other words, even if our government chose not to be transparent, Florida's access laws require that government provide us with all nonexempt information.

Florida's public records law, codified in 1909, was one of the first in the country, and, in my opinion, one of the best. In addition to the statutory right of access, Chapter 119 in the Florida Statutes, we also have a very specific constitutional right of access to the records of all three branches of state government — the legislative, the judicial and the executive.

Under Article I, Section 24, the constitutional right of access to the records and meetings of Florida government, only the Legislature can create exceptions to our right of access, and there is a very specific standard for the creation of new exemptions. This means that an agency or branch of government, whether state or local, can't deny a request for records without specific statutory authority.

Thus, in Florida, unlike in many other states, there is no balancing of interests by an agency in determining whether or not you get the record you requested: A public record request can be denied, in whole or in part, only if there is a statutory exemption, which means the Legislature must pass a law to exempt access to specific information or a specific public record.

So if, for example, you want to know more about the $699 paid to the First Amendment Foundation by the Department of Health in 2010, you can make a public record request of the department for all records related to the expenditure, including e-mail correspondence, purchase orders, drafts of contracts, final contracts — anything and everything related to the expenditure that is not specifically exempt. That $699 paid to the Foundation was for copies of the Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual purchased by Health Department offices throughout Florida.

I think we can all agree that why government spends our money the way it does is just as important as what it spends, and access to public records provides us with just this sort of information, information that allows us to hold our government accountable to we the people.

Barbara Petersen is the president of the First Amendment Foundation, a small nonprofit organization based in Tallahassee that acts as an advocate of the public's right to oversee its government through application of Florida's public records law and open meetings law.

Public records law keeps Floridians informed 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 3:31am]
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