"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both."
- James Madison
Sunshine Week, built around the birthday of James Madison, father of the Constitution, sponsor of the Bill of Rights, and an author of the Federalist Papers, concluded Saturday.
It's the week when media outlets and other watchdog entities band together to call attention to the continued need for open government.
But it's not just a media issue. Far from it.
Want to check which subjects your child's teacher is qualified to teach? Want to know if your kid's coach has been popped for DUI, domestic violence or a drug charge? Interested in what a developer has planned for that big, vacant property across the street?
You, not only members of the news media, have the right to easy access to those records, thanks to state statutes grouped within the "Government-in-the-Sunshine" laws.
These laws are intended to guarantee access to public records - from court and criminal records, to personnel and disciplinary records for public employees and regulated professionals, to e-mails and mail correspondence between public officials and those touting anr issue or project.
The Government-in-the-Sunshine laws also mandate the public's right to attend meetings of councils, commissions and boards vested with a public task and the right to be notified via public notice as to when those meetings will be held.
The intention of these laws is twofold. One, they assure that the public - those of us footing the bills - have access to information collected by various government agencies.
This includes not only arrest reports, court documents and tax records, but virtually all reports and correspondence among and between agencies and officials.
These open records preclude back-door dealings and machinations, leveling the playing field by putting knowledge where it belongs - in the hands of the people.
Two, Florida's Sunshine laws mandate open meetings. With limited exception, two members of an elected or appointed board with public decision-making or fact-finding authority are forbidden from meeting behind closed doors - i.e. out of the sunshine.
Knowledge, very truly, is power. And it's not intended to be limited to a few.
As Sunshine Week passes, there is no better time to remember, and defend, the open government laws that have put Florida among the leaders of such legislation across the nation.
Efforts to erode our rights persist as local agencies continue questionable practices to assess exorbitant costs to record requests and state legislators try to limit access to legal notices.
That's a shame.
Public records are exactly that - records that belong to the public. Parents have every right to check out the background of the person teaching or coaching their child. Taxpayers can and should peruse records pertaining to public expenditures. Watchdogs absolutely can view mail or e-mail exchanges that disclose the deal-making behind the proposal packaged for public consumption.
We urge continued vigilance. Open government is a fundamental right, its defense a fundamental duty.
Let the Sunshine in.
- Citizen editorial