The Herald-Tribune’s Dale White
March 16, 2017
As one of the panelists at a Manatee Tiger Bay Club forum on public records and meetings laws, Manatee County Attorney Mickey Palmer polled the audience.
“Raise your hand if you believe Florida’s public records act is a generally good thing?” Palmer asked.
Most of the roughly 50 people attending the Thursday program responded affirmatively.
“Raise your hand if you believe that there are citizens out there and lawyers representing those citizens who engage in abusive conduct relative to the public records act?” Palmer continued.
Again, a majority raised their hands — including two other attorney panelists: Andrea Mogensen, the lawyer for Citizens for Sunshine, which has sued local governments for alleged violations of Florida’s 1967 Sunshine Law; and Thomas Shults, who represents Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman in one of those lawsuits.
Citizens for Sarasota claimed Chapman and Commissioner Suzanne Atwell (who settled instead of going to trial) violated Sunshine requirements by both attending a private meeting of business owners and others to discuss homeless issues. Circuit Court Judge Brian Iten ruled in Chapman’s favor. Citizens for Sarasota filed an appeal, which is pending.
“I submit to you we have a conundrum on our hands,” Palmer said. “The public records act, I agree, is a generally good thing. But there are abuses that go on — serious, serious, shameful abuses.”
Palmer cited various cases in Florida that he regards as “predatory public records requests,” attempts to trap government officials into appearing to violate the Sunshine Law — such as a demand for all of the records that were on the desk of the police chief of the city of Gulf Stream at a particular hour on a particular date.
“Sure, there are abuses in every area of law,” Mogensen said, citing personal injury litigation as an example. Because a small fraction of attorneys and their clients may abuse a law, “that doesn’t mean we throw out the law.”
Mogensen said she regards Florida’s Sunshine Law as essential for “government by the people, of the people.” It entitles the media and the public to get information. “We cannot effectively self-govern if we are not educated.”
Public officials may feel inconvenienced by records requests, she said. “It is inconvenient for government officials, as are all constitutional requirements. … It does slow the pace of business.”
A police officer may feel inconvenienced and delayed in making an arrest if he or she must first obtain a warrant from a judge, Mogensen said. Yet that warrant requirement is vital to the protections of Americans’ freedoms.
Elected officials may feel burdened by requirements that their meetings be publicly noticed and minutes must be taken, Mogensen said. Yet they should be glad that those public notices and records let their constituents know they are doing their jobs.
Bradenton Herald editorial writer Chris Wille said access to public records and meetings is crucial for taxpayers to be informed. “You have a right to know where your money is going.”
Shults stressed that he, too, supports Florida’s Sunshine statutes. Interpretations of those laws, however, can be “stretched” in a way that could “chill” elected officials and their constituents’ abilities to seek information.
As an example, Shults noted that two Manatee County commissioners seated at separate tables (Betsy Benac and Robin DiSabatino) were in attendance. Yet he did not regard their presence as being a Sunshine Law violation because they were not discussing an item to be voted on in a future commission meeting and were merely listening to the panelists’ and audience’s comments.
Shults noted that, if contemporary Americans could go back to Philadelphia in 1787, they would want to attend the historic Constitutional Convention. But they would not be allowed in because that meeting of government leaders was “closed to the public.”
“As a result of that closed convention, America adopted what is probably the finest legal document known to man,” Shults said. Within it are the “rights” that led to federal and state laws ensuring transparency in government.
“Bit of an irony,” Palmer noted. [READ MORE]