It is with deep regret that I confess that my efforts have thus far been futile to motivate public attorneys in the Sunshine State to abide by the Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Act at public hearings, where they are wont to whisper in the ears of other public officials just as attorneys once secretly whispered in the ears of kings.
I have been run around the vicious circle once again, winding up where I started, still unswayed in my opinion that the Sunshine Law requires that whatever is said at public hearings should be heard by the public, including statements by government attorneys. That is as plain as day, but the Florida Bar is apparently institutionally blind or negligent.
It is true that knowledge is power. Politics is about the distribution of the absolute power religiously worshiped. Whispering keeps the people ignorant of what is really going on. The prime motive for the whisperings of lawyers in the ears of officials at public hearings is to maintain the power elite’s dominance over public affairs.
My constituents, numbering about a dozen or so, including attorneys who wish to remain anonymous, may recall my observation that pluralism has gone mad in Florida: it is a sort of federalism applied locally, with a vengeance for infringement of states’ rights by Uncle Sam. Central core functions are delegated to local officials whose negligence, incompetence, abuse of discretion and misprision became notorious for want of oversight. It is a truly vicious circle of public officials playing ping pong with citizens’ rights and concerns. It just so happens that my pet peeve is the right of everyone to an open and transparent government.
My readers may recall that I asked Governor Rick Scott to ask the Florida Attorney General Pamela Bondi for her formal Opinion on the subject in hopes that public attorneys throughout the state would abide by her instruction. The attorney general’s client is not the governed, but is rather the government, so the attorney general is forbidden to serve the people by providing Opinions unless designated public officials ask for them. The very same officials, many of them attorneys, would rather not have people know how they secretly manipulate and are manipulated by the advice of public attorneys.
The governor is supposed to uphold the law, yet he has the discretion to do nothing to uphold it when people complain except refer complainants to back to the very officials complained about, the very ones who are not inclined to uphold it.
The attorney general may also refer the complainant back to the local abusers, including, for example, the local state attorney and ethics commission staff. Or the complainant can always advance many thousands of dollars to hire attorneys to maintain their rights.
The mainstream media complain that the present Florida governor, who is an attorney, has demonstrable contempt for Florida’s Sunshine Law. Nonetheless, the so-called fourth branch of government cultivates public ignorance by ignoring blatant violations of the Sunshine Law at public hearings. On the other hand, if a local commissioner complains that a commissioner said something to another commissioner behind her hand during a hearing, the local state attorney will jump on it and the media will be all over it the very next day, yet nobody will bat an eyelid if an ordinary person made the same complaint, especially if it were an attorney doing the whispering.
In any case, although all I wanted was an Attorney General Opinion, I finally took Assistant Attorney General Lagran Saunders’ advice; I filed a complaint with local State Attorney Katherine Rundle on the matter on 29 October 2013. She did not respond, so I last informed my readers that I had been stonewalled by everyone charged with enforcing the Sunshine Law.
Still, I did not call it quits. I persisted doggedly. Lazy public officials expect people with unsatisfied legitimate concerns to just go away, just as dogs might stop coming around if not fed. Holding firmly onto my bone of contention, I asked eminent attorney Sandy D’Alemberte for his assistance on the matter.
Mr. D’Alemberte informed me that his two person law firm would be unable to help, although in fact his prestige alone did help when he kindly forwarded my correspondence to State Attorney Katherine Rundle, Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, and Assistant Attorney General Patricia Gleason, a foremost authority on the Sunshine Law.
Ms. Gleason was sympathetic although she had no choice but to run me around the bush again.
“Thank you for sending me a copy of your argument. While there have been arguments made over the years to change the current statutory provision which does not permit the Attorney General’s Office to issue opinions to private citizens, thus far the statute remains the same: opinions may only to be issued to government officials. Section 16.60, Florida Statutes, establishes a voluntary open government mediation program but that program does not permit issuance of attorney general opinions unless the government agency requests one.”
And on 13 June 2014 I heard from local Assistant State Attorney Johnette Hardiman.
“Good Afternoon Mr. Walters, The State Attorney forwarded your e-mail to me for review. I just wanted to acknowledge receipt of it before commenting on the content. I will review it over the weekend and be in contact with you early next week. Johnette Hardiman, Assistant State Attorney.”
I followed up when I did not hear back from her. No answer: I finally followed up on 4 August 2014, and I copied to Katherine Rundle.
“Ms. Hardiman: I have not received your comment as promised June 13 or a response to my follow up. I will appreciate you take on the subject one way or the other, as I plan on drafting another press release, and would rather not speculate on your position. Sincerely, David Arthur Walters”
When I still did not receive a response, my imagination ran wild with speculations that I managed to quash out of the respect for the office itself. All I wanted was an opinion one way or the other. Ms. Hardiman broke her promise. How trustworthy can the local State Attorney be?
On August 5, I addressed Mr. D’Alemberte on the subject again: “It appears the subject matter is taboo. Every private attorney I ask says, off the record, that my position is correct. Not a single public attorney will ask for an AGO or seek a judicial determination. I shall appreciate any comment you can make on the record.”
“I admire your tenacity,” was the only thing he would say.
Well, never say die. I shall ask Raul Aquila, the new city attorney for the City of Miami Beach, to request an Opinion from the state attorney general.
Lacking that, who knows? Perhaps one of my “constituents” will come forward and file suit for violating Miami Dade County citizens’ rights to full and accurate information including records of conversations of public attorneys during public meetings. According to the Charter, winning attorneys can get costs and fees, and public officials willfully violating the obvious requirement of transparency forfeit their offices, although that is precisely the course of action I never wanted to take.
The Miami Dade County Commission on Ethics staff summarily dismissed my inquiry with a spurious opinion, although its director, Joe Centorino, had informed me on 3 May 2012 that, “Because openness and honesty in government is entrenched in the Citizen’s Bill of Rights, over which the COE has jurisdiction, and because the COE provides training to municipal governments on these laws, we have taken a broad view of our role and have responded to complaints about violations of the Sunshine Law and Public Records Law.”
Mr. Centorino, who is reputedly an expert on the Sunshine Law, would probably cavil his way out of his Citizens Bill of Rights, claiming its provisions cover only records already created, not unrecorded conversations.
Yes, answering the question with the obvious answer, that the transactions of public attorneys with officials at public hearings are subject to the sunlight, is taboo in the Sunshine State.