Article written on 8/5/01 in the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald Tribune

Public records can be useful even if you're not a reporter
by Rosemary Armao, Managing Editor

A story hugely important to this area ran in the Herald-Tribune's business section Saturday without a single quote or any information from the powerful businessmen involved in it.

A Georgia shopping mall developer has spent $5.3 million recently buying at least 250 acres of the Taylor Ranch and acquiring an option for more than 14,000 additional acres.

The developer had no comment for us; Taylor Ranch bigwigs would entertain no questions; lawyers all around kept mum.  Plainly they saw no advantage in letting the public in yet on plans underway for the tract.

If you agree that secrecy is undesirable when it comes to such matters of community interest as growth and development, the conduct of police and government bodies, the background of elected officials and how well charities we support carry out their missions, then say thanks and help protect the continued availability of public records.

Having seen the power of public records records to keep government and businesses accountable and officials above-board, I am pained by the current mania to close down information.  I'd like to see more people - both in the newsroom and in the community - educated about the usefulness of public records.

In the case of Taylor Ranch, records filed with Sarasota County and open to public viewing by law and long tradition in the United States revealed much about the transaction.

Deeds, mortgage and other land records are among the most valuable of public documents in a society where property is a form of wealth.  Is the price you're being asked to pay for a new house out of line?  Is a public official living way outside his means?  How have property values changed historically in an area?  The answers are all stored in county offices.

Courthouses are libraries of public documents.  Nearly everyone sues, gets sued, testifies or sits on a jury.  Check out your doctor's past performance.  Look into a contractor you might do business with.  I had a friend once who ran the names of all potential dates through local court files before she said yes.

A wonderful public document is the form 990 that charities must file annually and make available on demand to anyone who asks to see it.  Actually, the IRS requires that charities keep copies of three years' worth of 990s on hand.  And if you are thinking of donating to a cause, you should ask.  The 990 will tell you what top charity officials earn and give you some idea of where it is getting money and whom it is giving.

Many public officials and judges must file disclosure statements listing property, stock and other financial holdings.  These public documents protect against secret conflicts of interest.

Your school board, city commission and county commission keep full minutes of their meetings.  With only a few exceptions, all discussions and votes are open for inspection.

Counties maintain Fictitious Name Statements or Doing Business As files in which people or companies must disclose if they are working under a name other than their legal one.

I'll stop before I turn out a Top 40 of public records by restating my point.  Open records protect against secrecy and abuses, and we need to think about that as we worry about invasion of privacy.

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