Several news associations will ask Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal for leave to file legal briefs in the Florida Sunshine Act’s Public Records Law appellate case between the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast (EDC) and Brevard County Clerk of Court, Scott Ellis.
The EDC, a private entity contracted with Brevard County to promote economic development within the County, is appealing a judgment handed down in April by Brevard County Circuit Court Judge, John Dean Moxley, Jr., who ruled that the EDC is indeed a public agency subject to Florida public records law and must produce its documents related to BlueWare to Ellis.
“Economic development and nurturing economic advances promulgated by the Chambers of Commerce are appropriate governmental functions…,” Moxley reasoned in his Final Judgment. “…the scope of the contract delegated economic development of Brevard County to the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, Inc. Accordingly, any records generated in carrying out those duties are public records subject to inspection.”
The Florida Press Association, Associated Press, Lakeland Ledger, Sarasota Herald Tribune, Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, and Florida First Amendment Foundation will seek to jointly file what is known as an – which means “friend of the court” – because those organizations are not actual parties to the lawsuit.
“The [economic development commissions] receive millions of dollars in public funds and many, if not most, work on behalf of the state and local governments to promote economic growth and development,” said Florida First Amendment Foundation President, Barbara Petersen. “It’s our position that the public has a right – and the need – to know how their tax dollars are being spent and why, and what those dollars are being spent on. That’s the purposes of our open government laws – accountability and transparency.”
Just last week, Brevard County Commissioners voted 4-1 that County Attorney Scott Knox file an amicus brief in support of the EDC’s position that it is not a public agency.
“My office has always maintained that the EDC is subject to the Public Records laws under certain circumstances within the scope of the contract,” Knox wrote in an email to Brevard Times. “But the contract specifically says the EDC was retained as an independent contractor, not as an agent or agency of the County. The Court ruling states that the County delegated its economic development function to the EDC, however, it is clear to me that is not what happened.”
“In my opinion, the Court’s ruling is overly broad and will hamstring the EDC, thereby putting Brevard County at a competitive disadvantage vis a vis other counties and cities in Florida, not to mention states such Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia and California, to name just a few,” Knox said.
“This litigation and ruling will be precedent-setting for the State of Florida and every economic development organization working for jobs and capital investment as this ruling could jeopardize effectiveness as well as damaging the State of Florida’s reputation in economic development,” EDC President Lynda Weatherman told Commissioners. “It’s not just investment in Brevard County, no one will invest in the State of Florida.”
But the State of Florida’s top economic development department appears not to be climbing the same wall of worry expressed by Weatherman and Knox. “At this time, DEO has no plans to file a brief,” Florida Department of Economic Opportunity spokesperson, Jessica Sims, said earlier this month.
The EDC isn’t finding much public support in the case from its state level counterpart, Enterprise Florida, either. Enterprise Florida wouldn’t confirm whether or not it was going to file a brief in support of the EDC.
Former Brevard County Clerk of Court Mitch Needelman entered into a $6.1 million loan with Hewlett Packard after losing the primary election to Ellis in 2012. Needelman then used the loan proceeds as an upfront payment to BlueWare before the company ever fulfilled its scanning contract with the Clerk’s office.
BlueWare is the company caught up in a public corruption criminal case brought by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and State Attorney Phil Archer against former Clerk of Court, Mitch Needelman, his former business partner Matt Dupree, and BlueWare CEO Rose Harr.
Ellis continues to assert that the loan done by Needelman, BlueGEM, Harr, and Hewlett-Packard was illegal and unconstitutional in repeated legal actions brought by HP against the Clerk’s Office for repayment of the loan.
The EDC helped BlueWare and some of its affiliated companies to qualify for various government programs and other “workforce incentives” that could have totaled nearly $2 million in taxpayer money. In 2013, Ellis repeatedly requested that the EDC turn over its BlueWare documents so that he could defend the lawsuits brought by HP. However, the EDC refused to hand over all of its BlueWare documents to Ellis.
After the Clerk’s office learned from a Brevard Times investigative article published on August 26, 2013 that State of Florida Department of Economic Opportunity officials said that BlueWare’s confidentiality had lapsed and Governor Rick Scott’s Office stated to Brevard Timesthat the BlueWare incentive contract was canceled on April 5, 2013, the Clerk sent his auditors to the EDC in Rockledge the next day to request a copy of the EDC file on BlueWare. When the EDC refused to comply with that last public records request, Ellis then filed the lawsuit which is now on appeal.