By Josh Salman
The secretive nature of business recruitment across Florida could soon become much more public following a court ruling in Brevard County that requires the area’s economic development agencies to comply with open government laws.
The decision has already prompted the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County to consider a settlement that would end a five-year legal saga with the government watchdog Citizens for Sunshine Inc., which sued the EDC for accepting tax dollars then spending them in the dark.
Previously a function of Sarasota County, business recruitment was moved to the EDC after it was created a decade ago to work more discretely than an official government agency, avoiding some of the laws that make records and meetings available to the public.
Attorneys representing Sarasota’s EDC say the organization already complies with many of the open records guidelines that apply to governments in Florida.
The settlement would force the Sarasota EDC to notice meetings, open gatherings to the public, publish minutes and comply with the majority of records laws governing other agencies — potentially changing the way economic development organizations operate across the state.
“The real problem is that companies that might consider relocating here don’t want to read about it in the newspaper,” Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson said. “They’re sensitive to these negotiations. It’s not about ducking the public’s right to know, but operating like a government can be a hinderance to private business. There’s an advantage for (the EDC) to have more leeway than we could.”
Previously a county subcommittee, the EDC was created by Sarasota County commissioners through a 2004 resolution.
At the time, Sarasota became one of the first governments in Florida to delegate those efforts to a third party.
The EDC uses a mix of government funding and private donations to diversify the local economy, helping employers expand or relocate here by guiding them through the government processes and granting incentives available.
By operating as an semi-independent arm, EDC officials say the organization can work more effectively — and faster — than other Florida communities that delegate those efforts to a government department.
But the EDC must still follow county procurement rules, a majority of its funding comes from local taxes, and all of the paper clips and furniture inside the EDC’s office at The HuB building in downtown Sarasota are owned by the county, which acts as the “administrative agent” under terms of the agreement.
Citizens for Sunshine argued that meant all of the EDC’s documents were owned by the county as well, subjecting them to same public records laws as other county departments, aside from the exemptions granted statewide by lawmakers to protect company confidentiality during active negotiations.
When the EDC denied a public request in 2009, Citizens for Sunshine sued the organization and the Sarasota County Commission, court documents show.
Citizens for Sunshine argues more visibility is essential to prevent deals like the one with Sanborn Studios, which was given $650,000 in local incentives for promises to create nearly 120 jobs. In a lawsuit against Sanborn, the county contends that the studio failed to fulfill its promises.
“If you’re going to outsource that function of the government, you must also outsource the responsibility to comply with Sunshine laws,” said Andrea Mogensen, an attorney representing Citizens for Sunshine. “It’s not right to prioritize the secrecy of these companies over the public’s right to know how their money is spent. It just feels wrong.”
Mark Huey, the EDC’s president and CEO, did not return calls seeking comment.
Morgan Bentley, an attorney representing the EDC, said the organization already complies with many of the public records mandates outlined in the settlement.
He also said the EDC’s board of directors now meets in public, although they are not legally required to, but many of the EDC’s subcommittees do not.
Bentley said he fears that fully opening the EDC up to the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law will also force every other environmental committee, civic group or neighborhood initiative that receives any government funding to do the same, burdening those small organizations with added costs and record-keeping.
The attorney is also still fighting the settlement offer’s request for the EDC to pay for $75,000 in attorney fees incurred by Citizens for Sunshine in the case.
Any settlement would need majority approval from Sarasota County commissioners. The offer has a Nov. 5 deadline.
“We have come close to an agreement a number of times over the past five years and it just never happened,” Bentley said. “In this case, we don’t have a good history of getting these settlements done, so I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The turning point in the five-year legal bout was a decision by another Florida court this year ruling against an economic development arm in a comparable case.
In March, a circuit court judge sided with the Brevard County Clerk of Court in a case involving Economic Development Commission documents.
The court ruled that because of the commission’s role with Brevard County, “any records generated in carrying out those duties are public records subject to inspection.” The EDC there is appealing that ruling.
That decision, coupled with any settlement in Sarasota, could eventually force other economic development organizations that operate with tax funding to comply with open government laws. In many areas, these quasi-government groups are tied to local chambers of commerce.
The issue could affect communities like Manatee County, where the EDC has had considerable success helping companies relocate and expand under a structure somewhat similar to Sarasota’s. But Manatee’s EDC operates with about 70 percent private funding and 30 percent public, more than the split in Sarasota.
Even statewide, the agency tasked with administering Gov. Rick Scott’s job growth and business incentive plan has faced criticism for failing to comply with media records requests and operating behind a curtain.
Florida has very broad public records laws and sunshine statutes are more strict than most other states.
“When we’re working with companies that want to expand or relocate here, it’s confidential, so our leadership doesn’t even know those details,” said Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of the Bradenton Area EDC.
Operating out of the sunshine “gives you flexibility, so I guess you could perceive it as a benefit, as opposed to meetings that are open to the public and the press.”