January 11, 2022, CD Davidson-Hiers

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One of the most useful tools of civic engagement is a public records request. This is one of the tenets of the Florida Center for Government Accountability’s philosophy.

In an event on Monday, January 10, FLCGA leaders discussed what the nonprofit government watchdog can do to assist the public access public information, and how FLCGA is working to fill the void caused by shrinking newsrooms. (Watch the full video here.)

To date, staff has answered more than 100 calls for help navigating public access issues in less than a year the organization has been operating — and the nonprofit is in litigation with the Florida Department of Health over access to public records detailing COVID-19’s impact on the state.

“I think that…the public records law is the most important tool and most powerful tool we have,” Executive Director Barbara Petersen said during the Monday event. “We might have to go to court, we might have to argue, but ultimately, if that record is subject to disclosure, we’re going to get it.”

Petersen is a First Amendment attorney, expert and former head of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. She co-founded the FLCGA with Naples residents Linda and Nick Penniman. Linda Penniman is a former Naples council member and Nick Penniman spent nearly four decades in the newspaper business.

The organization, which launched its website in April, has two divisions — a Public Access Program and Journalism Program. The mission is simple: Assist the public with records requests and pursue investigative journalism.

FLCGA’s journalism program, headed by veteran journalist Bob Norman, works with a stable of freelancers to investigate issues central to Floridians. FLCGA also helps newsrooms throughout the state in their own investigations and assists individual reporters encountering public records problems.

“Ultimately, it’s unlimited, the potential for what we can bring to all the people of Florida via these news outlets,” Norman said during the Monday event. “I think it’s really important to know that we’re not competing with these news outlets, we’re working with them.”

Notably, the FLCGA has assisted the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel, and continues to field calls from journalists covering a daily beat.

“We fight every day for public records. And more and more frequently, we’re seeing delays,” Petersen said.

Unreasonable delays, rising costs, denials of requests based on erroneous reasons — these are just some of the obstacles facing the public’s right to public information.

In 1985, there were about 250 exemptions to both public records and open meetings law, Petersen said. By time she left the First Amendment Foundation in 2020, she said there were 1,025 exemptions to this law.

But, too, shrinking newsrooms and fewer investigative journalists play into the role of the public not having access to credible information.

The FLCGA is working to change that, by assisting members of the public with records requests, by pursuing its own journalism, and by assisting journalists who work tirelessly to hold government accountable.

Most of the tips received and reviewed by the FLCGA come from non-government citizens. About a fourth of tips come from potential whistleblowers. The FLCGA does not disclose the identity of informants without permission.

“We feel the public’s right to know is extremely important in a democracy,” Linda Penniman said. “They need to know the good, the bad and the ugly.”

The Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) is a nonprofit dedicated to helping enforce open government laws. To do that, the FLCGA relies on grants and donations to continue its work. To learn more, visit http://www.flcga.org/.

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