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Date of Issue: March 11, 2009

City staff, officials get 'Sunshine' lesson

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Sunshine resources For a guide on open government laws and procedures, go to the First Amendment Foundation's Web site at www.floridafaf.org.

To seek mediation in a records dispute, call the Florida Attorney Generalís Office at 850-245-0204.

To download a copy of the Florida Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual, go to www.myfloridalegal.com.

Bradenton Beach elected officials and appointed board members gathered indoors Feb. 26 for a session in the sunshine.

The city of Bradenton Beach, following its charter, hosted an annual lesson on the Florida Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

In Florida, the Sunshine Law provides a right of access to government proceedings at both state and local levels. Also, every person also has the constitutional right to inspect or copy any public record, with some exceptions.

The session took place at Bradenton Beach City Hall, with city attorney Ricinda Perry leading the program on open government.

“The sunshine law is really self-policing,” Perry said. “It’s pretty much common sense.”

But, she added, there are some nuances, tipping points and slippery slopes to watch out for.

Perry conducted the session using a 32-question test consisting of mostly true-or-false questions.

Most people at the meeting had previously attended a Sunshine Law session and the information seemed familiar, but there were questions about whether new forms of communication — such as texting messages on a cell phone — are covered under the Sunshine Law.

They are, said Perry, pointing out a recent case on the matter.

Also, Gov. Charlie Crist’s Commission on Open Government Reform released a report in January that recommended “all agencies adopt policies that prohibit the use of text and instant messaging technologies during public meetings and/or hearings.”

The commission said text messages and other “such messages which are transitory in nature, are analogous to the spoken word and the public records law most likely does not apply.”

Florida’s open government laws are among the strongest in the nation.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office is charged with mediating disputes involving open government, specifically access to public records. The program is intended to resolve a dispute but avoid expensive and time-consuming litigation, which proved to be the case in an Islander lawsuit against Bradenton Beach over the Sunshine and public records laws.

McCollum’s office has launched the Government Accountability Project to encourage governments to proactively provide more records, especially on Web sites.

The first phase of GAP involved analyzing county and school district Web sites for records posted. The second phase, now under way, involves working with local governments on adding records to Web sites.

McCollum also urged government agencies in the state to make openness their new year’s resolution — and to do so by Sunshine Week, which is March 15-21.

To promote open government, journalism associations, newspapers and other media outlets will observe Sunshine Week nationwide from March 15-21.

The Florida Association of Newspaper Editors launched the Sunshine Week campaign in 2002, and it has grown over the years to a national effort. The scheduling coincides with National Freedom of Information Day and the birthday of James Madison, a major contributor to the ratification of the Constitution and the framing of the Bill of Rights.

The Islander encourages citizens to participate in the government process and promote open government. To find out what government meetings are taking place during Sunshine Week, go to page 3.