Allow me to propose a few really simple rules of thumb for public officials:
If a citizen asks you for a copy of a public record, hand it over.
If you’re tempted not to, know the specific legal exemption from public-records laws.
If you’re participating in a meeting about public business, leave the door open.
If you’re tempted to close it, know the specific legal exemption from Sunshine laws.
If you’re closing it in the face of someone who is holding a reporter’s notebook and pen, be ready to provide the specific exemption statute citation.
Given the Times-Union’s insistence on open government, with occasional reinforcement from courts and grand juries, you’d think our public officials would have a pretty good grip on those concepts by now, but last week I dealt with a couple of angry elected officials who still don’t get it.
They were on a search committee — of sheriffs, prosecutors, City Council members and others — to screen applicants and recommend the next District 4 chief medical examiner. Since it’s an important position and since the current ME is controversial and a candidate, we’re covering the committee’s work.
Our reporter, Andrew Pantazi, was the only other person in the room during the committee’s climactic meeting to identify and rank the finalists. He listened to their phone interviews with the candidates, but then co-chair Angela Corey, state attorney for this district, directed him to leave while the committee discussed their rankings and recommendation.
She and the other co-chair, Jeff Siegmeister, state attorney for the Third Judicial Circuit, relied on the belief of a Medical Examiners Commission staff member, who is not a lawyer, that they could deliberate secretly. They did and emerged with the finalists in rank order but without any reasoning or discussion.
As you know, we don’t take such exclusion of the public from their own business lightly, so we consulted with our lawyers, while they belatedly consulted with theirs, and all those lawyers agreed: Closing the meeting was illegal.
As James D. Martin, assistant general counsel for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the lawyer for the state Medical Examiners Commission, wrote: “I have reviewed the law and it is my opinion that such deliberations should be open to the public.”
Last Friday, we published an editorial making that case and concluding, “The search committee members failed to live up to the obligation to be fully accountable to the public. It’s unfortunate and shameful that they did so.”
City Councilman Robin Lumb, a member of the committee who was not even named in the editorial, called and emailed to protest as soon as the editorial hit our website, before the newspaper came out.
He said he relied on State Attorney Siegmeister: “Given his standing as an attorney and a law enforcement official I had no reason to doubt his authority on matters pertaining to this process. In fact, it was my belief, based (on) statements made by Mr. Siegmeister, that the final stage of the selection process . . . was required to be held in private as a matter of law.”
Carla Miller, director of the city’s Office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight, has some sympathy for Lumb. “I feel for Robin,” she said. “He’s not a lawyer, and he was with all these other people with far superior information.
“If it had been a City Council meeting, we’ve trained them to death. They don’t even close doors at City Council anymore. If that had happened at City Hall, they’ve been trained so much. The door’s open, everything’s posted online. But here, he’s plucked up and put in a different situation at the state level.”
Miller said her job was created and the city became much more transparent as the result of a 2007 grand jury investigation provoked by Times-Union reporting about secret meetings of City Council members.
She is not so forgiving of the two state attorneys who co-chaired the meeting and closed the doors.
“The state attorney is charged with knowing the Sunshine law and enforcing it. It’s a criminal violation under the jurisdiction of the State Attorney’s Office. If anyone would know the law, it would be the state attorney or someone from the Attorney General’s Office.”
Yet Corey was as angry about our editorial as Lumb. She said committee leaders relied on that staff opinion and “common sense,” and “There is no law directly addressing the discussion portion of the MEC search committee meeting.”
In fact, there is. Both the Florida Constitution and state statutes require that meetings of all public bodies shall be “open to the public,” even on personnel matters, unless there is a specific exception — which there is not in this case. In a 1983 case just like the MEC search, a court reaffirmed openness.
“The presumption is that everything’s open,” Miller said, “and if you’re going to close something, you better have the statute right in front of you. The Sunshine law is very specific. Everything is open unless there is a specific exception.”
Still, Corey demanded a retraction of the editorial and an apology. “By your opinion piece you have gratuitously tarnished the good members of this committee and the process in which the committee engaged.”
Actually, we improved the process by adding integrity. Thursday, co-chair Siegmeister, while still not agreeing on the interpretation of the law, reconvened the committee — with Pantazi covering — and re-created the discussion that had been closed. Pantazi said the committee seemed sincere in the re-creation.
So we have a happy ending.
Really, three happy endings.
In Pantazi’s report in Friday’s T-U, we found out that our local officials really wanted to recommend the incumbent, Valerie Rao, but were narrowly outvoted in favor of Thomas Beaver, a California pathologist. We found out that, while there have been serious questions about Rao’s management abilities, Beaver seems to be a stronger administrator. Our story went on to provide more details about each finalist, giving you some insight into them and the seriousness of the search process. Now, when the governor makes the appointment, you’ll have insight into the reasons.
A second recent example of the power of open government was our reporting on the state’s Value Added Model using students’ anticipated improvement as a way of evaluating teachers. You’ll recall we had to sue the state to liberate those VAM scores, and we were criticized for putting them all, with teachers’ names, on floridatimesunion.com.
But that allowed us to report deeply on the value, validity or invalidity of VAM and generate public understanding and discussion. As a result, people are better informed and capable of assessing that attempt to evaluate teachers — who now seem to appreciate that understanding.
And the third case is pension reform. Again, you’ll recall that we had to sue to invalidate Mayor Alvin Brown’s secretly negotiated agreement and get a court order for negotiations to be in public. Over the past few weeks, we’ve done a lot of deep reporting on the subject, and this past week, you’ve read all about the public negotiations between Brown and the Police and Fire Pension Board.
I’ll bet you are feeling much more informed and involved in the struggle over this issue critical to the future of the city.
All of these issues will be resolved more effectively, fairly and democratically if you the citizen are watching and, if you wish, participating.
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