Don’t write it down.
When it comes to keeping secrets a secret, there is a greater chance of success if the secret is not in writing.
“Records are public records,” said attorney Clyde Davis.
Davis is the legal representative for the Nassau County Ocean Highway & Port Authority for the Port of Fernandina, and recently he led its board through a compliance review on public records requests and access under Florida’s Sunshine laws.
“The main thing is to know what the boundaries are,” said Davis.
He told commissioners that the boundaries include texts, cell phones, landlines, Internet and emails.
“They’re all public records,” said Davis. “We have that obligation to the pubic that we serve.”
He also told commissioners that they are not allowed to ask who wants the records or why they want them.
“You can’t ask the reason for the request or ask for identification,” said Davis.
Davis said that he could brief individuals privately if they have concerns.
“And I’m not going to give you anything because I’m not going to generate a public record,” said Davis.
The meeting also focused on public access to information with regard to economic development. That’s because the Port has agreed to help finance utilities at Crawford Diamond, the certified industrial site west of downtown Callahan, to help attract a manufacturer or industrial complex to set up shop here.
Davis told commissioners that if they make a connection with a potential company, they should give it to Nassau County’s Economic Development Board (NCEDB).
“They have the ability that we as a public body cannot do,” said Davis.
And that’s keeping secrets.
“Let them generate the records,” said Davis.
The NCEDB and the chamber of commerce are good resources, he said, because they have greater protections from Sunshine regulations.
He told commissioners that if they need to share information in public meetings, they should avoid specific details.
“There’s nothing wrong in keeping generalities,” said Davis.
This kind of information sounds like anti-Sunshine advice.
It did to Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.
“It is a violation of the spirit and interest of our constitutional right of access,” said Petersen. “The purpose is oversight and accountability.”
In a phone interview, Petersen said that all public officials should embrace Sunshine.
“It’s a paternalistic attitude to say, ‘Trust us. We’re doing it for a specific purpose,’” she said.
She said attempts to side-step public access is like a driver’s ed instructor telling students to set the cruise control six miles over the speed limit to avoid a speeding tickets.
“It’s wrong,” she said.
The meeting was attended by Commissioners Richard Bruce, Danny Fullwood, Carrol Franklin and Brian Reaves. Commissioner Ronnie Braddock did not attend. Officials cited a medical reason for his absence.
Commissioners asked questions about what to tell and who to tell.
Franklin said an engineer asked him for a tour of the Crawford Diamond site. Did he have to report that?
“You don’t have to notify the press, you’re acting on your own,” said Davis.
He told commissioners not to sign non-disclosure agreements and that economic development is as competitive as college football recruiting. He told them not say anything bad about the competition and to keep things quiet.
“You don’t want them to think you’re not trustworthy,” said Davis.
Commissioners shared concerns about the city of Fernandina Beach’s recent receipt of a legal complaint over a public records request.
“It was a sneak attack,” said Fullwood.
Davis said commissioners should watch for traps.
“You all are probably the most vulnerable,” said Davis.