Winter 2015 - In This Issue:
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By Pete Weitzel
Barbara Jeffords Lemley, a Lake City resident who refused to be deterred when a local hospital authority repeatedly "made it tough" to get public records, and Stew Lilker, a newspaper editor-publisher who took on the authority's repeated skirting of Florida's open government laws have been named recipients of the 2015 Pete Weitzel/Friend of the First Amendment Award.
The Florida First Amendment Foundation's award recognizes their, "hard work, determination and dedication" to holding the Lake Shore Hospital Authority accountable for its repeated side-stepping of the public records law.
Lemley's first requests for public records were denied. Subsequent requests were heavily redacted, incomplete, or denied completely. Then Lemley was told she would have to pre-pay for any records sought, which meant driving to the authority's office, depositing as little as 30 cents, then returning another day to actually get the record requested. The authority's policy required citizen Lemley to give 24 hours notice of a records request, then limited record viewing to a single hour beginning at 8:30 a.m.
Lilker reported on this and other violations of open government laws by the hospital authority in his newspaper, the Columbia County Observer, and set up a separate webpage on how the authority was "Keeping the Public in the Dark" by denying records, holding meetings without an advance public agenda and refusing to make public copies of agenda items being voted on.
He also filed a lawsuit, Stewart Lilker vs. Lake Shore Hospital Authority, challenging the authority's policies and won. The authority appealed - and lost again. It's fight against the law costing taxpayers an estimated $300,000
Lemley and Lilker will receive their awards at the Foundation's annual Sunshine Recognition luncheon Tuesday, January 26, 2016 at the Governor's Club in Tallahassee. 
Mark your calendars! The First Amendment Foundation's Sunshine Recognition Luncheon is earlier than ever.
With this year's early legislative session, the First Amendment Foundation will host it's 13th annual Sunshine Recognition Luncheon on January 26, 2016 at the Governors Club in Tallahassee. It will be held from 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Each year at the luncheon, FAF honors past and present winners of the Pete Weitzel/Friend of the First Amendment Award. For the first time FAF is presenting two Pete Weitzel/Friend of the First Amendment Awards. Barbara Jeffords Lemley and Columbia County Observer Publisher Stew Lilker are being honored for their dedication to defending Florida's open government laws.
Tables are $1,250 for a table of 10 and $1,000 for a table of eight. Individual tickets are $125. To purchase a table or individual tickets, please contact FAF at 850.224.4555 or via email at or go to
The First Amendment Foundation thanks you for your support in its mission of protecting and defending Floridians' access to their government during a tumultuous 2015. As you think about your year-end giving and plan for 2016 please consider a contribution to the foundation so that it can continue to be your strong advocate for government in the Sunshine.

The biggest story of 2015 has to be the governor's spending more than $1.3 million in public money to settle lawsuits over public records and the Sunshine law.  That's never happened before, and we certainly hope it never happens again. 

Midway through this year, First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen brought together a broad group of organizations and individuals who share the view that legislators and top public officials are doing more to erode Florida's open government laws than to improve them.  The Florida Sunshine Coalition that emerged from that first discussion convened again in Orlando and an action plan for 2016 has taken shape to better get the message out to the public and to put our elected representatives on notice that we will hold them accountable. 

Looking ahead to the New Year, the First Amendment Foundation is excited to start its new partnership with the Poynter Institute.  We will be expanding our educational programs and using Poynter's support to make more people aware of what the foundation does and why it's so vitally important to Florida. 

Thank you again to everyone who has done so much to show that you value the foundation's work.  We're immensely grateful for the financial contributions of individuals and organizations, for the many hours of pro bono legal support, for the wise and creative ideas of a host of contributors and for the growing number of private citizens who ask for the foundation's help when they are forced to use the law to gain access to their government because they've been left with no other choice.

To learn more about the foundation's work and to access our rich collection of news and information about government in the Sunshine, visit us online at and while you're there, please once again consider making a financial contribution. 

We hope you have a warm and wonderful holiday season with friends and family and offer our very best wishes for the New Year. 

For the staff and trustees of the First Amendment Foundation,

Dave Wilson, chairman

By Bob Shaw
More than 60 advocates of open government gathered in a large conference room at the Orlando Sentinel in November to form the Florida Sunshine Coalition, pledging a united fight against efforts by the Florida Legislature and local governments to thwart the right of access to public records and meetings.

Attending the gathering, which was organized by First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen, were representatives from the League of Women Voters, the Center for Public Integrity and other non-profit, academic and media groups concerned about the continuing erosion of Florida's landmark Sunshine laws.

"I've been doing this now for 26 years, and I've never seen a more hostile environment towards open government," said Sandra Chance, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

"One of the things I've noticed is a decline of the commitment of government offices to respond to open records laws," she added.

Petersen said that government agencies are increasingly resorting to legal but questionable tactics such as charging exorbitant fees in advance or responding to requests in the order they were received - which can result in routine requests being delayed for weeks because they came in after something more complex.

"Many agencies, both state and local, are skating right along the edge of the law, just this side of legality," Petersen said. "It's an adversarial attitude and it's getting worse."

Petersen also cited the more than $1.3 million in taxpayer dollars paid out by Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet in fees and settlements "to rectify violations of our constitutional right of access to the meetings and records of our government."

In addition, she said, one-third of all the bills passed by the 2015 Legislature created exemptions to government meetings and records - bringing total exemptions to more than 1,100.

The group also heard from best-selling author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiassen and Marty Ellen Klas, capitol bureau chief for the Herald, who both said journalists and advocates needed to focus more publicity on abuses of the Sunshine laws.

Among the recommendations made at the summit:
  • Set Jan. 26 as "Sunshine Day" for advocates to come to Tallahassee to press legislators to strengthen Sunshine laws.
  • Establish a position to investigate violations within the statewide prosecutor's office. Petersen noted that the Sunshine laws have no enforcement provisions today, leaving a lawsuit the only option for advocates who are denied access.
  • Create a litigation defense fund.
  • Ask people who make public records requests to make a video of the request, especially if it's being denied or delayed, and post them on an Open Government YouTube channel, a suggestion made by Klas.
  • Require that court costs for open records violations come out of government officials' salaries or pensions, not taxpayers funds.
The group also called for the creation of several committees, including one to review and examine new laws and possible state constitutional amendments; another to review potential litigation; and a third focused on educating the public about the importance of government transparency.

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