By William Mattox, JMI Resident Fellow
Posted March 14, 2012
Weather patterns in the Florida Panhandle have not changed much since last March.  Nevertheless, the citizens ofJackson County have benefitted from a significant increase in “sunshine” over the last year.  That’s because their local officials have made “proactive disclosure” of county government activities a higher priority.  As a result,Jackson County earned the distinction of having Florida’s “Most Improved” government web site in 2012, according to data compiled by the Sunshine Review, a national service that regularly assesses government transparency using a ten-point checklist.Jackson County’s jump in the annual rankings of government transparency ought to serve notice to other jurisdictions around the state.  For whether one’s population is large or small, proactive disclosure of government information is increasingly important (and increasingly easy) in our digital age.   Indeed, proactive disclosure acknowledges that governments have a responsibility to help citizens understand how public business is being conducted and how taxpayers’ dollars are being spent.  And one of proactive disclosure’s many benefits is that it can help reduce the need for (and expense of) citizen-initiated Freedom of Information Act requests.While Jackson County’s earned the “most improved” distinction, 28 local governments from around the state earned “Sunny Awards,” the Sunshine Review’s highest honor for transparency excellence.  This represented a significant increase from last year (when 22 Florida jurisdictions were so honored) and meant that Florida once again has more jurisdictions earning the Sunshine Review’s top grade than any other state.  In fact, only five other states had as many as 10 jurisdictions earn an A grade in 2012. In 2012, seven Florida counties garnered A grades for the first time:  Indian River, Highlands,Lake,Leon, Osceola,Sarasota, and St. John’s.  Two county school districts (Duval and Lee) and one Florida city (Oakland Park) did so as well. Overall,Florida had more top scores than any other state, and the Sunshine State received a cumulative transparency grade of B.  Among other things,Florida’s overall grade was held down by a high number of “problem sites” (those earning a transparency grade of D or F) which declined only modestly, from 46 to 42, during the last year.   Generally, more-populous jurisdictions fared better than less-populous jurisdictions.  But there were a number of exceptions to this rule – and a number of situations where a county school district scored significantly better than the county government (or vice versa).  Indeed, Duval, Indian River, Lee,Palm Beach and St. John’s were the only areas to garner A grades in both the county and school district categories.  Conversely, the only areas to receive failing grades in both categories were Calhoun, Glades,Lafayette, and Union.Failing to provide easy access government audits and to public records were the most common transparency problems cited by Sunshine Review.  Many counties also fell short in providing information about contracts.  Many school districts failed to reveal appropriate information about background checks.  And the state government’s www.myflorida.com website (which earned a B) received only partial credit for usability.    Florida continues to be a national leader in government transparency, and many citizens have reason to be pleased with the priority that their public officials are giving to proactive disclosure of government information.  At the same time, the Sunshine State still has much room for improvement. Governments looking to do a better job of disclosing public business can take inspiration from school districts in Hardee and Flagler counties, which raised their 2012 scores by two letter grades each – and from Jackson County, which raised its score by three letter grades and won Florida’s “Most Improved” distinction.Each year during Sunshine Week (the week of First Amendment author James Madison’s March 16 birthday), The James Madison Institute releases a government transparency report–see “Proactive Disclosure in the Sunshine State: A 2012 Progress Report on Government Transparency”.