Florida is well known for its laws promoting the openness of the government to the public, whether this includes meetings, records or more. The origin of such laws is rooted in a desire to keep government officials as open and transparent as possible, which promotes accountability and fairness.
Local government officials, including mayors, administrators and other officials or professionals, are likely familiar with the Florida Sunshine Law, as well as other related laws promoting government openness. However, when such officials are presented with a request for information, how should they respond?
What is the Florida Sunshine Law?
It may first be helpful to understand more about the Sunshine Law. Established in 1995, the Florida Sunshine Law allows for the general public to have access to both state and local government public records. Such public records may include documents or letters, books, maps, tapes, videos, photographs, recordings and more.
The law also provides guidance on necessary efforts to retain and preserve such records:
- Public records must be preserved in the buildings where they are typically used;
- When possible, a custodian of public records must keep the records in fireproof and waterproof safes, yet still easily accessible; and
- Record books must be copied or repaired when damaged or difficult to read.
Some exceptions to requests for access to public documents can include personal emails, records pertaining to the physical security of a facility, federal records designated as non-public by the federal government and more.
How should government officials respond?
When a citizen requests access to such public records, it is important for local government officials to comply with the Sunshine Law and grant such access, in many cases. Requests can be made over the phone or in writing to the custodian of public records.
Notably, Florida law does not provide government officials with a timeline in which they must respond to such requests. Instead, they must respond within a reasonable timeframe. Citizens may fight back against either a denial of their request or an unreasonably delayed response. For this reason, it is critical for government officials to seek legal guidance for any questions or confusion that may arise after receiving requests for access to public records.