Florida Sunshine and Public Records Laws By Adam Gilroy 9/23/13 Often times the government is perceived by average citizens as a secret meeting behind closed doors where decisions are made in secret and relayed to the outside world for people to then abide by. In the state of Florida, however, citizens have a legal right to attend meetings of governmental bodies and have access to records pertaining to governmental decision making bodies. Florida has established a history of openness pertaining to the citizen’s right to be made aware of governmental dealings. In 1909, the first public records law was passed in Florida. Section 1 of Chapter 5942 in Acts 1909 stated simply that “all State, county and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection of any citizen of Florida, and those in charge of such records shall not refuse this privilege to any citizen” this section legally required that residents of Florida have access to public records such as transcripts of meetings, tapes, photos and other materials. The public records law has been greatly expanded since 1909 and can now be found in Chapter 119 of the Florida Statues. In 1967, Florida passed what would become known as The Sunshine Law. The Sunshine Law allows for residents to be made aware of and attend meetings of commissions, boards and agencies that decide matters of public interest and is found in Chapter 286 of the Florida Statutes. In the early 1990s, questions about whether or not these open meeting laws applied to the Florida Legislature began to surface. In 1992, the Attorney General’s office drafted an amendment to the Florida Constitution that passed overwhelmingly. This amendment guarantees that the openness of the State’s government
applies to both the legislative and judicial branches and that both are included in The Sunshine Law. The Sunshine Law is important to the people of Florida because it provides relatively uninhibited access to the inner workings of government, and it allows the people to inform themselves on the decisions being made in their community. In order to understand Chapter 286 or, The Florida Sunshine Law, it is important to establish who is responsible for opening their meetings. Most state, county and municipal governmental bodies are subject to the open meetings law. This includes boards, commissions and agencies under control of the state legislature both appointed and elected. These parties include any designated group of people who collectively make decisions which impact citizens at the state, county or municipal levels. A â€œmeetingâ€? is defined according to the law as any correspondence between two or more members of these groups where matters pertaining to their group is discussed. So a meeting subject to The Sunshine Law can be as formal as a gathering of a civil service board or as informal as a lunch between two or three members of said board where the boardâ€™s business is discussed. Other examples of open meetings include: county and city commissions, school boards, regulatory boards, planning and zoning boards, appointed boards, civil service boards, university committees and even private organizations that provide service to public agencies. The legislature has the right per the 1992 constitutional amendment to create exemptions to the public meeting law as long as it can justify a public necessity for providing a new exemption. To date, over 200 exemptions have been passed limiting public access for safety or confidentiality reasons. Some examples include: city councils and attorneys discussing pending litigation, grand jury proceedings, meetings of peer
review panels of hospitals and surgical centers, student expulsion hearings, hearings where HIV test results are revealed, and certain criminal justice meetings where the council will hear or discuss active criminal investigative information. Based on the constitutional separation of powers, the governor and cabinet are not subject to The Sunshine Law. Private organizations are only subject if their activities show clear relation to public body decision making. These examples are not considered “exemptions” because they are unaffected by The Sunshine Law to begin with. According to Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes a public record: “means all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software, or other material, regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency.” This establishes that the public has a right to access any of these materials from any agency. An agency, according to the statute, is as follows: “means any state, county, district, authority, or municipal officer, department, division, board, bureau, commission, or other separate unit of government created or established by law including, for the purposes of this chapter, the Commission on Ethics, the Public Service Commission, and the Office of Public Counsel, and any other public or private agency, person, partnership, corporation, or business entity acting on behalf of any public agency.” Thus, the law leaves little room for public decision making bodies to argue that they have any material that is exempt from public viewing unless specifically cited by the Legislature. Some practical examples of public records include: arrest reports, emails, financial records, agency documents, salaries, written communications, court orders and budgets. Similar to Chapter 286 pertaining to open meetings, the legislature is allowed to create exemptions to Chapter 119 if they can determine that the releasing of certain documents could cause significant harm or danger. There are currently over 1000
exemptions to the public records law. Many of these record exemptions are based on logic and do not in any way negate the public’s access to information that would be useful to them in their daily lives. Some examples of records that are exempt from public viewing include: medical records, birth and adoption records, autopsy related documents, social security numbers, intelligence of law enforcement agencies, home addresses and phone numbers of law enforcement officers and firefighters, personal information of state attorneys and judges, home addresses of lottery winners and student educational records. Making a public records request is fairly simple. There is minimal official protocol that must be followed in order to obtain records from state agencies. Requests may be submitted in writing, in person, by phone or through email or other online correspondence. Many state agencies even have a form on their website that a citizen can fill out in order to make a public records request. In order to deny a citizen access to a public record an agency’s public records custodian must be able to state a basis for that exemption including statutory citation. Additionally, the custodian must state in writing the reasons the record is exempt. The Sunshine Law includes remedies for wrongful refusal of an agency to comply. A “knowing violation” according to Chapter 119 is a first degree misdemeanor and is punishable by up to one year in jail. “Unknowing violations” carry fines up to $500.00. Some records requests may incur small fees which must be paid by the citizen in order to receive the document. A standard copy may cost .15 cents per page and sometimes the record access costs slightly more based on the amount of work done to provide the record. Florida’s Sunshine Laws and Public Records Law are extremely important in that they allow the public to be involved and informed of the decisions being made in their state and local community and how those decisions were reached. Access to meetings and
records are valuable tools with which citizens can inform themselves. Chapters 119 and 286 of the Florida Statue are where these laws are found. The 1992 constitutional amendment assures Legislative and judicial meetings are included and that these laws will be in effect for years to come in Florida.