P. C. Wu: Legislation would reduce number of frivolous open-records lawsuits

When it comes to having an open and transparent government that is accountable to the people, Florida leads the nation. Since the Florida “Government in the Sunshine” law was enacted in 1967, we have served as a model for other states.

In a world where technological advancements have introduced even more material into the public record, we continue to be on the cutting edge of reforms.

As president of the Florida League of Cities — an organization that serves as a united voice for Florida’s 410 municipal governments — I understand that all levels of government are accountable to the people. That’s why I was pleased to learn that improving government accountability and efficiency was part of the 2014 joint legislative agenda established by Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford.

They understand that now is the time to pass legislation that will ensure that citizens can have easy access to public records. During this legislative session, the Florida League of Cities has been engaged with legislators, staff and open-records experts and advocates — including the First Amendment Foundation — to improve open-government laws. Florida’s municipalities are committed to serving their citizens with dedication and transparency.

But there are some citizens who use minor technicalities to exploit loopholes in these laws. They file costly lawsuits before a public entity has an opportunity to respond to the request or provide the requested records. These shortsighted actions hinder local governments’ ability to provide important services, and they put an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.

I believe that now is the time to remedy these oversights so that governments can get back to their primary role of serving the people. Proposed language to amend SB 1648 and HB 1151, supported by the Florida League of Cities and the First Amendment Foundation, does just that.

As a member of the Pensacola City Council for almost a decade, I have seen the transparency and accountability that our public records laws provide, and I am wholeheartedly in support of keeping government in the hands — and before the eyes — of the people.

The language proposed by the Florida League of Cities and the First Amendment Foundation would require training of all employees who deal with public records requests, would make it easier to request public records, would limit fees that agencies can charge for public records and would put an end to spurious and abusive lawsuits.

I am confident our lawmakers will enact legislation that simplifies these issues and creates an atmosphere of trust among Floridians. We’ve had a proven track record in this area and I look forward to seeing it continue and develop.

As this year’s legislative session enters its final weeks, I want to reiterate the importance of an open and transparent government in our state and urge lawmakers to address these issues.

P.C. Wu is a member of the Pensacola City Council and is the current president of the Florida League of Cities.  Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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