Fall 2015 - In This Issue:
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By Dave Wilson
For three days in early September, the identities of confidential informants and undercover police officers were made public in a batch of documents posted on the city of West Palm Beach's website in what appears to have been a misguided attempt by the city's spokesman to provide "transparency" in producing public records.
The Palm Beach Post reported the exposure of sensitive information on Sept. 14.
The Post reported that Mayor Jeri Muoio said the city's spokesman, Elliot Cohen, had released emails as part of a public records request about surveillance cameras in the city before protected information in the emails could be redacted. Cohen was not responsible for having the documents redacted, the Post reported.
The batch of documents amounted to about 2,200 pages in response to a request filed by WPTV NewsChannel 5 reporter Katie Lagrone. The Post reported that Cohen's public posting of the documents under the heading of "transparency" was viewed as an act of retribution against reporters.
A reporter's public records request is almost always related to a potential story. So when an entity such as a municipality, state agency or other public entity that is subject to Florida's laws on public records and open government makes such a request and/or its responsive documents public for all to see it takes away the competitive edge from the person who originally made the request.
(Gov. Rick Scott's office started posting online on its Sunburst site the responsive documents to public records requests after July 1.)
In the Post's coverage of West Palm Beach's public posting of public records, First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen was quoted: "You cannot convince me that these government entities ... are doing that in the name of transparency. They're not. It's intimidation, is what it is."
In the fallout from the city's public embarrassment from its public records blunder, Mayor Muoio changed how public records will be handled. Requests and releases won't be handled by Cohen or his office. Police will handle their requests. Requests for other city departments will go through the clerk's office. And the city is looking for a way to store police emails on a server separate from other city email. learn of a misapplication of the law. Frequently, they have responded positively, ending the practice or correcting the error.

That's not bad for the first 30 years. "Provided" it's just a start in protecting the public's right to know.
By Pete Weitzel

When Florida's Legislature is involved and election districts are at stake, the answer is anything but straight. And the process is so shady and manipulative that the state's highest court has gotten into the act, declaring the lines were drawn with "improper political intent." 
Voters in 2010 approved a constitutional amendment setting guidelines for drawing congressional and legislative district lines. In July, after a challenge by voter's rights groups, Florida's Supreme Court ordered the legislature to redraw at least eight of the state's 27 congressional districts, ruling that the behind-closed-doors gerrymandering that established the boundaries in 2012 violated the Constitution.  
The House and Senate were unable to agree on new district lines during a September special session and the issue immediately shifted to Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who held three days of hearings on seven separate sets of district maps, submitted by the House, Senate and citizen groups that filed the initial suit.   
Although former Senate President Don Gaetz once proclaimed that the 2012 redistricting process was "the most transparent" in Florida history, recent testimony told a story of private meetings between legislators and of conversations between legislators, GOP lawyers and staffers working on district map proposals behind closed doors, with the purpose of benefitting incumbents or the in-control Republican Party.   And legislators argued the plaintiffs got help on their maps from Democrat operatives.
Judge Lewis is scheduled to send his recommendation to the Supreme Court by Oct. 17, selecting one of the seven congressional district maps submitted during the three-day hearing in court or coming up with his own variation.    
And the House and Senate return to Tallahassee for an Oct. 19 special session to draw new lines for State Senate districts.  Have they learned anything from their time in court?   Well, the House and Senate have agreed that staff will present five or six base maps for consideration - and that all their conversations related to the line drawing process will be recorded and available for public review as required by the Supreme Court.
It still leaves the lawmakers to talk among themselves, of course.
Florida has a new crusader for open government. The Florida Sunshine Coalition is a grassroots organization made up of individuals, activists, and organizations supporting the public's constitutional right to oversee its government and hold it accountable.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, facilitated creation of the organization in response to ongoing attacks on Florida's Public Records and Sunshine Laws.
"Our right of access - and our ability to hold government accountable - is under constant threat from top to bottom, across all levels of government, and is constantly vulnerable to erosion," Petersen said.
The Florida Sunshine Coalition plans to hold a Sunshine Summit on Nov. 16 in Orlando, Florida. There they will discuss open government issues and challenges facing citizens and those anticipated for the 2016 legislative session. A platform will be decided on at the November summit, as will a plan for moving forward.
"This isn't a partisan issue - it's a core democratic principle. We need to work together to make sure that our rights are not checked and diluted by our Legislature, which seems to take great interest in chipping away at our constitutional right of access," Petersen said. "Access to government information is important to us all for all sorts of reasons. Each of us, regardless of political affiliation or cause, depends heavily on strong open government laws to do our job, to be an effective advocate for our causes and constituencies."
For more information, email fl.sunshine.coalition@gmail.com.
By Bob Shaw
Florida taxpayers have shelled out nearly $1.3 million to defend Gov. Rick Scott from claims that he violated public records laws and conspired with the Cabinet to violate the state's open meetings law.
Scott in August agreed to pay Tallahassee attorney Steven Andrews $700,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that the governor and several members of his staff used private emails accounts to shield their communications from the public and then withheld the documents. In addition to the settlement, Scott also used state funds to pay $165,000 to the private attorneys who defended him.
In June, Scott agreed to pay $55,000 to St. Petersburg attorney Matthew Widener who, along with public records advocates and most of the state's newspapers and media organizations, alleged that Scott and the Cabinet violated open meeting laws when they used intermediaries to fire Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey without a public meeting or a recorded vote.
Outside law firms billed Scott's office $139,000 for their legal work in that case. In addition, outside lawyers representing the state's three Cabinet members - including Attorney General Pam Bondi, the state's chief law enforcement officer - billed a total of $225,000.
The Miami Herald reported that the two settlements were the first time a sitting governor has used taxpayer money to end public records cases pending against him.

News of the payments infuriated open government advocates. "I find this absolutely outrageous,'' Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, told The Herald. "Gov. Scott took an oath of office - twice - promising to uphold our constitution. And we Floridians pay through the nose when he violates our constitutional right of access.  Voters should be incensed." 

And a retired Navy captain named John Blonsick started a petition on Change.org to require that Scott pay the bill out of his personal funds. "As the eighth richest politician in the entire United States, with a whopping $147 million dollar net worth, it is shameful and hypocritical that he has now abandoned his principles of fiscal and personal responsibility and is making Florida citizens pay for his mistake," reads the petition, which had more than 4,100 signatures as of mid-September.

In addition, a Public Policy Polling survey released in mid-September found that 70 percent of Floridians believe Scott should pay personally, while only 20 percent of respondents agreed that their money should finance Scott's legal bills. Even 62 percent of registered Republicans said Scott should pay, compared to 79 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents.

Andrews, whose office is housed in a building adjacent to the Governor's Mansion, first sued the governor and Cabinet for violating a contract he had to purchase the building in 2012. While trying to obtain emails and documents relating to the case, Andrews discovered that the governor and his staff had set up a series of private Gmail accounts and used them to conduct public business. Scott denied using his personal account for public business and then, when Andrews sought from Gmail the IP addresses of persons sending to the account, hired a California law firm to unsuccessfully prevent a court order that they be turned over.
Andrews then filed a separate suit alleging that Scott not only withheld documents but engaged in "actively concealing them" and "conspiring with others" to conceal them. The $700,000 payment settled both that lawsuit and the one involving the building.
The Weidner suit accused Scott and the Cabinet of using staff as back-channel communicators in the ouster of Bailey, the veteran FDLE commissioner who told the Tampa Bay Times that a Scott attorney gave him an hour to clean out his desk. The FDLE commissioner reports to the Cabinet, which is responsible for hiring and firing, but there was no public meeting or vote on Bailey's ouster.
"It is clear this governor has made a calculated decision that violating the constitutional rights is the cost of doing business - a cost he doesn't have to bear," said Weidner, whose suit was joined by numerous media groups and open-government advocates. "While these numbers are shocking, you can't calculate the cost to citizens of the state for government that is operating in darkness. The real costs will be borne in years to come for a government that operates in contempt for fundamental right to records."

Scott's office made no attempt to explain or defend the governor's use of state money to settle the lawsuits. But it did quietly make one policy change: the governor's office of open government now posts all public records requests received by any executive branch office to the governor's open government website.

The story may not be over. Weidner is now working with Kenneth Weiss, an attorney from Treasure Island, to try to obtain copies of Scott's Gmails. We'll keep you posted.
Used with permission from The Florida Times-Union

It is absurd that Florida, on Gov. Rick Scott's behalf, must pay $700,000 in taxpayer funds for blocking and delaying access to public records.

Barbara Petersen, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, put it perfectly when she said, "Our governor plays fast and loose with our Constitution and we're stuck with his legal bills. It's outrageous."

Yes, it is.

But Floridians should do more than just fume that they are writing a hefty check.

They must also demand that Scott finally absorb a lesson he's been stubborn to heed as governor: Floridians have a right to be fully informed about how their state government operates.
And they have a right to be given proper access to the public records that provide the transparency needed to understand how their state government operates.

Floridians must make clear to Scott that he must fully respect his obligation to conduct the public's work in the sunshine.

Scott recently approved a $700,000 settlement to resolve several lawsuits brought against his administration by Steve Andrews, a Tallahassee lawyer seeking records on the state's actions in pursuing a piece of land, located near the governor's mansion, that Andrews was attempting to purchase.

Rather than simply provide the records that Andrews sought, Scott - as well as two state agencies and Attorney Gen. Pam Bondi's office - hemmed, hawed and stalled.

Eventually, Scott's office was forced to turn over hundreds of pages of email that showed the governor used a private account to discuss state business, a disclosure that only made Scott's administration look even worse.

Finally accepting the fact that getting out of this self-inflicted hole required him to stop digging a deeper one, Scott agreed to give the six-figure settlement to Andrews to end the whole matter.

But Scott's sudden burst of enlightenment came only after he wasted nearly $100,000 more hiring outside lawyers to fight a silly battle that could have been avoided by simply providing the public records that Andrews requested.

Sadly, this isn't the first time Scott has shown an aversion to government transparency. Scott owes it to Florida's taxpayers to stop forcing them to open their wallets and purses to pay for his foolhardy attempts to close access to records.

It's time for Scott to stop writing checks that Florida's taxpayers must bankroll.

That's not too much to ask.

But it may be too much to expect, given Scott's frequent disdain for operating in the sunshine.
NFOIC - Former Miami Herald managing editor, Pete Weitzel has become the 16th   inductee into the State Open Government Hall of Fame.

Known as the "Heroes of the Fifty States," the Open Government Hall of Fame is a joint initiative of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) and the Society of Professional Journalists. Inductees are recognized for their "long and steady effort to preserve and protect the free flow of information about state and local government that is vital to the public in a democracy." Formal induction takes place on October 10th at the 2015 Freedom of Information Summit in Denver, Colorado.

Pete Weitzel began reporting in Miami in 1959. The Tampa Bay Times said of Pete in 2009, "When Pete began reporting... he covered city councils that made decisions behind closed doors and a state Legislature that conducted most of its business in private." Pete remained at the Herald as a reporter and editor for nearly 40 years.

While president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in 1984, Pete, now 79, established the Florida First Amendment Foundation to serve as a government transparency watchdog and served as its president until 1995. In that role, he helped draft an amendment to the Florida Constitution guaranteeing citizens a right of access and served on a Florida Supreme Court commission that modified the court's rules on court records.

Following his retirement from the Herald, Pete taught at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He has also taught at the University of North Carolina Journalism School and Duke Law School and served as executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, an organization that investigates cases of possible wrongful conviction.

In January, 2004, Pete moved to Washington D.C. and started the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, an alliance of 32 journalism-related organizations working on open government issues. Working with the American Society of News Editors, he helped launch the first Sunshine Week.  Pete also helped launch the NFOIC and served as its second president.

NFOIC's current president, Barbara Petersen said "Pete dealt with government officials at all levels and understood better than most, the importance of open government training and education." Petersen, who is also the president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation added, "Florida is the leader in open government, with some of strongest access laws in the country. It is in no small measure due to Pete's vision and his unflagging support and advocacy."

The 2015 FOI Summit, which also serves as NFOIC's annual conference, brings together state and regional FOI coalitions and advocates of open government. Karen Kaiser, SVP, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at The Associated Press, is this year's keynote speaker. Visit NFOIC online or contact the coalition to register for this year's FOI Summit.
FAF's new Online Open Government Training program is a valuable tool for those who use public records, as well as for agency employees and officials who need to stay current on the law.

The Online Open Government Training program meets the requirements of Section 112.3142, F.S. for Florida's  constitutional officers and elected municipal officers, and has been approved for continuing education requirements for various professional associations, including the Florida Bar.
Register today.

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