Each year, The Breeze, along with newspapers and media outlets across the country, takes part in Sunshine Week.
The initiative, launched in 2005, is intended to "Promote open government and to push back against excessive official secrecy."
This year, Sunshine Week opened Sunday, March 16 and concludes Saturday, March 22.
The Breeze usually takes this time to highlight roadblocks to open government, including - our least favorite - the interpretation that government entities can stymie public records requests by charging fees over and above those allowed by law for "extensive" requests. Basically, that means that entities such as the city of Cape Coral, Lee County, Lee County Sheriff's Office and the School District of Lee County can, if they choose, charge for staff time for such things as records recovery and redaction if a legal and proper request takes "too long" to fill. In some cases that's as little as 15 minutes or half an hour.
This year, though, we're going to pay some kudos and we're going to address the other side of the open government coin, the public, which sometimes believes open records and government is a "media issue," rather than a basic civil right guaranteed - in theory - by state statute.
To mark Sunshine Week this year, Clerk of the Court Linda Doggett offered a free public seminar on public records information - specifically how to access information available on the Lee County Clerk of the Court website - on Thursday at the Fort Myers Beach Public Library.
According to a release from her office, she did this for two reasons. One, because "Sunshine Week is a nationwide initiative promoting a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Sunshine Week seeks to educate, enlighten and empower the public's right to know."
And two, because : "Public records are not only useful to businesses and organizations, but can help you make better informed decisions in your personal day to day life."
We agree, and we will share some of the records the Clerk's Office makes readily available to the public - i.e. the taxpayers whose funds pay for the maintenance and retention of the records.
We thank Ms. Doggett for her participation and we urge the public to remain vigilant. Information on the Clerk's website allows, as the office pointed out, access to such things as "Civil and Criminal public records of prospective tenants or employees, or when choosing a new doctor or selecting a local contractor."
All that, though, is just the tip of the iceberg to records that are applicable to the public's personal lives - and pocketbooks.
Want to know what the development plans are for that vacant parcel down the street? If they are in the works, those plans are available upon request from the city or the county - before the first shovel is turned.
Want to know who contributed to whose campaign for local, county or state office? It's public record and available on the city, Lee County Supervisor of Elections or Florida Department of Elections Office website.
Want to know if there are past complaints against the person educating your child?
Or whether that "nice neighbor" has an unsavory criminal past before allowing your child to spend any time at their house?
Personnel records are available from the entity for which any public employee works - though this, unfortunately, remains an area sometimes fraught with "extensive" request charges.
Criminal records are available on not only the Clerk's website but the Lee County Sheriff's website, the Florida Department of Corrections site and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement site, which devotes a special section to sexual predators and offenders records.
Public records access, and its twin, public meeting access, are key to open government and keeping the public informed.
We again thank Ms. Doggett, and we urge the public to hold all government agencies accountable.
Let the Sunshine in.
- Breeze editorial