From the managing editor: Why we all should care about public records


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Rick Hirsch, managing editor, can be reached at 305-376-3504 or The mailing address is One Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132.

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This week, Bal Harbour sent its police chief packing.

Chief Tom Hunker left his job Friday after a series of Miami Herald stories by reporter Daniel Chang that disclosed his tiny department’s questionable spending of millions seized from drug dealers and money launderers.

Two weeks ago, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office reopened an investigation into attempted absentee ballot fraud in the Aug. 14 primary election.

They acted after reporter Patricia Mazzei disclosed information prosecutors missed in their own probe of computer generated ballot requests. Mazzei dug deep into the files and uncovered new clues that prosecutors are now pursuing.

Each story has a common thread: Florida’s public records laws were central to unearthing the news.

Today is Sunshine Sunday, part of Sunshine Week, a nationwide discussion about the importance of access to public information and what it means for you and your community.

Sunshine Week was started in Florida in 2002 by the Florida Society of News Editors (FSNE), during a year in which our state Legislature had filed 150 amendments attempting to weaken our open government laws. Since then, it’s become a national event, supported by such organizations as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Though Florida voters enshrined government in the sunshine in the Constitution in 1992, there are new assaults annually on open government.

This year, there are bills that would shield state university search committees from scrutiny, block access to records of child abuse death reviews and make secret the financial statements of companies bidding for public contracts.

In investigating aspects of alleged ballot fraud last fall, public records rules enabled us to review a variety of suspicious activities that could have impacted the election. That access helped us reach out to registered voters to determine if ballots were being sent to people who actually sought one — or to others posing as voters.

And that brings us to one of the 50-plus public records exemptions being considered in Tallahassee this spring. House Bill 249 would shield the email records of registered voters and voter registration applicants from the public.

Why should you care? Because good public records laws make it more difficult for people doing wrong to hide what they’ve done. They give the public the ability to force disclosure of information.

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