Gov. Rick Scott has taken a significant step forward for government-in-the-sunshine. The governor's unprecedented effort to make his email and the emails of his top staff easily and readily accessible on the Internet reflects the spirit of Florida's public records laws, and other public officials should follow his example.
Project Sunburst, unveiled last week, makes it much easier for the public to keep tabs on the governor's office. The emails will be posted daily at flgov.com/sunburst, and the goal is to make them available online within 24 hours. That is in line with the general expectation of how long it should take to fill most public records requests on paper, but the reality is that it often takes longer for some state and local government agencies to produce even routine public records. Providing records electronically in a read-only format also helps the public avoid paying fees for paper copies.
The emails to and from the governor, lieutenant governor and their top staffers represent 80 percent of the public records requested by the public from the governor's office. They can range from the routine, such as schedules and invitations, to revealing exchanges between staffers and legislators. Skeptics oddly argue that the result of this open government initiative will be less open government, because staffers could avoid using email. But any effort to make public records more available to more members of the public is positive. The reality is that savvy officeholders and government officials already avoid discussing the most sensitive issues in email.
Any governor has a learning curve after taking office, and Scott's was particularly steep on public records and open government after a career in the private sector. But he has come a long way. Last year, the governor refined his procedures for obtaining public records from his office after open government advocates pointed out that the process took far too long and cost too much. This year, he signed into law the legislation that he sought that makes clear the transition records generated by a governor-elect and four other statewide elected officials are public. Scott also ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate after some emails generated by his transition team were either destroyed or could not be located. The FDLE investigation remains open.
Credit Steve MacNamara, the governor's chief of staff, for pursuing the Sunburst initiative. The effort includes a review process that screens email for information that is exempt from public disclosure, and the process can be fine-tuned along the way. Nothing that was public before is secret now, and the integrity of the system can be tested the old-fashioned way — by making a written public records request for specific paper or electronic documents. More public records are being made available electronically by the courts and by local governments, and Scott's Sunburst program is an enlightened approach that can be easily expanded.