Palm Beach County’s government watchdog holding closed-door meetings with a group of local officials has been questioned as a possible violation of Florida’s public access laws.
John Bowers, a former auditor at the inspector general’s office, wrote to the State Attorney’s Office and the county’s Ethics Commission raising concerns about the meetings held by the inspector general.
Bowers argues that because the group meets regularly and provides feedback to the inspector general, it qualifies as an advisory board and the public should have access to its meetings.
“The (Office of Inspector General) cannot solicit input from these closed door meetings and then have the recommendations influence its work,” according to Bowers’ email to the State Attorney.
Inspector General John Carey says that the group doesn’t qualify as an advisory committee that would be subject to the state’s government “Sunshine Law,” requiring public access to its meetings.
Instead, Carey says his quarterly gathering of several city managers from across the county is an informal group that is part of his outreach effort, aimed at improving communication between his oversight agency and local governments.
“We never discuss ongoing investigations or audits,” Carey said. “It’s not a committee. … Nobody is really appointed. Nobody has to come.”
Bowers maintains that as an oversight agency, the inspector general’s office “should be the most transparent in its activities.”
Florida’s government Sunshine Law and open-records laws provide public access to government records and meetings. Aimed at promoting transparency in government, the law forbids local elected officials as well as appointees to government committees or advisory boards from discussing public business with each other outside of public meetings.
Ultimately the function of the group that the inspector general meets with, and not whether its members are appointees who take formal votes, determines whether it should be subject to the state’s open-meeting requirements, according to Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.
For example, the Sunshine Law requirements don’t necessarily apply to government staffers holding fact-finding meetings behind closed doors, but could apply if it’s a group established to make recommendations to a government agency, according to Petersen.
“It raises questions if he does this on a regular basis,” Petersen said. “It’s never easy [to determine] without knowing what they are doing.”
The county’s inspector general post was created in 2009 in reaction to a string of local government corruption scandals.
The inspector general and his team of auditors and investigators are empowered to hunt for fraud, waste and abuse in local government. The inspector general recommends ways for government to operate more efficiently and also reports suspected criminal wrongdoing to the State Attorney’s Office.
Carey took over as inspector general in June. He replaced the county’s first-ever inspector general, Sheryl Steckler, who held the position for four years.
Carey said the meetings with city managers and another periodic meeting with business leaders and ethics reform advocates are a continuation of meetings started by his predecessor.
The group of city officials includes city managers from Tequesta, Delray Beach, Belle Glade, Palm Beach and Royal Palm Beach, Carey said.
Carey said he briefs the groups about activities at the inspector general’s office and he asks for any individual comments, feedback and suggestions.
Original article here.