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Sunshine Week is for everyone

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Open government week observed

By Jim Clark

This is Sunshine Week in the state of Florida.

No, it’s not a tourism come-on to entice northerners to visit our state. It deals with open government in our state and the right of the people to know what’s going on in their local and state governments.

There are two major laws that pertain to open government. One is called the Government in the Sunshine law, and it requires, with some exceptions, all meetings of governing and advisory boards of cities and counties to hold public meetings.

The other the public records law, which makes city and county records open to inspection by the government.

For some reason, some officials, when elected, get struck with “secrecy fever.” Maybe they’re just insecure in their elected positions, but many of them want to keep things secret, keep them away from the public.

In other words, they don’t want you to know what’s going on.

Fortunately, over the years, the number of officials who feel this way, or at least those who act publicly that way, has dwindled.

Some of the attempts to keep things from the public may be accidental additions to items that mean well.

Recently we read that the new city manager of Williston wanted to meet individually with council members to get a consensus before items were discussed at a meeting. This would have the effect of shortening the meetings, a noble gesture, if you’ve ever sat through some of those gatherings.

However, it would also have the effect of keeping the public away from the decision-making process, since the consensus would have been reached before the open meeting.

This isn’t a new idea. In fact, we found an attorney general’s opinion dating back to 1989 (89-23), which specifically addresses that issue:

“This office has determined, similarly, that the Government in the Sunshine Law is applicable when a person other than a board member is used as a liaison among board members. For example, a city manager should refrain from asking each commissioner to state his or her position on a specific matter which will foreseeably be considered by the commission at a public meeting in order to provide the information to the members of the commission.”

So you can see how a seemingly innocent plan can be an impediment to open government. For that, we all have to be vigilant.

On the other hand, many cities have constantly tried over the years to hide the names of applicants for key positions, using the excuse that it would hurt the applicant in his present job.

Some would go so far as to use coded numbers for each candidate, an obvious violation.

To its credit, the city officials of Williston did none of this. Access was given to the applications and resumes of candidates for city manager, and we ran the list. That kept the public informed.

Remember, these laws apply to the public, not just the press. You’re entitled to public records, with certain restrictions, and you’re entitled to attend meetings.

It does seem to us that precious few of you do take part in meetings, or even elections, but that’s your choice.

We’ll keep fighting for your right to take part in government. Remember government “of the people, by the people, for the people” were strong words by Abraham Lincoln, but they should still apply today. You can all help make sure that they “shall not perish from the earth.”

Jim Clark is the editor of the Williston Pioneer Sun News. He can be reached at editor@willistonpioneer.com or at 528-3343.