Volume 30, Number 5 0 A monthly report of mass media law in Florida
Published by The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information U College of Journalism and Communications U University of Florida
Agencies get lackluster reviews in
A statewide public records audit by from the county, city and school district
Florida news organizations revealed that officials and a log of incoming calls at law
42 percent of local government agencies enforcement agencies.
audited violated the state's Public Records Although requesters of public records
Law. are not required to offer their names, the
During a week in February,
volunteer journalists posed A
as ordinary citizens and
requested records from county RI
governments, city halls,
school boards and sheriff's
offices. Volunteers requested e-mails
audit found that names were
E SS demanded 16 percent of the
MDS Eighteen percent of the
agencies required a form
or written request before
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
Major news outlets join battle
for FEMA disaster aid records
ATLANTA Major media companies
have stepped up to assist three Florida
newspapers in their fight for FEMA
The Associated Press, E.W. Scripps
Co., Media General Corp. and the Tribune
Co. filed a brief with the 11th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals, urging the reversal of
a lower court's ruling that the names of
FEMA aid recipients are exempt from the
Freedom of Information Act.
The News Press (Fort Myers), the
Pensacola News-Journal and Florida
Today sued in a federal court last year
after FEMA refused to disclose details of
how it distributed disaster assistance.
U.S. District Court Judge John E. Steele
agreed with FEMA lawyers, who argued
aid recipients deserved privacy protection
in accordance with the federal Privacy Act
The newspapers argued the information
was necessary to examine alleged
improprieties and fraud in the distribution
of more than $1.5 billion in disaster aid,
according to the AP.
"The decision in this case will have a
direct and immediate impact on the ability
of the (media outlets) to report about both
relief efforts that already have taken place
and those that will take place in the future,"
attorneys for the media outlets wrote.
Agencies were given an hour to tell
volunteers that the records were public
and when they would be available. Nearly
40 percent of the agencies took longer
than an hour to provide that information.
"These laws are so important and
so critical we shouldn't be satisfied
with anything less than 100 percent
compliance," said Pat Gleason, general
counsel to Attorney General Charlie Crist.
"That is the goal we should be striving to
WINTER GARDEN A recall
election based on Sunshine Law
allegations has been upheld by the
5thDistrict Court of Appeals. Winter
Garden residents recalled City
Commissioner Bill Thompson in March
2005. Residents of a mobile home
park claimed Thompson admitted
on tape that he spoke to Mayor Jack
Quesinberry about a proposal to close
the park. Quesinberry has denied the
The 5t District Court of Appeals
held that an Orlando trial court judge
was correct in his finding that the recall
petition was "legally sufficient" and
allowing the election to go forward.
Deerfield officials cleared of
DEERFIELD BEACH A ci
commissioner and Deerfield Bea
mayor did not violate the Sunshi
in connection with a pension
board appointment, according
to the Broward State Attorney's
Popelsky and Vice Mayor
Steve Gonot were accused of ha
ty private discussion prior to appointing
ich's vice Andy Brown to the city's fire pension
ne Law board. Deer Creek resident Steve Miller
filed the complaint in
Assistant State Attorney
MEETINGS Michael Horowitz wrote
in a three-page report that
there was no evidence that
ving a Sunshine Law violation occurred.
Popelsky and Gonot both denied the
Days before Miller filed the Sunshine
complaint with the State Attorney's
Office, he also filed a complaint against
Gonot with the state Ethics Commission.
Miller alleged Gonot violated the
Public Records Law and failed to report
a a possible conflict of interest. That
complaint was dismissed in December.
ACCESS RECORDS CONTINUED
Law enforcement agencies join to share data
The project was formed in response
to a finding by the 9/11 Commission that
poor sharing of information between law
enforcement agencies was a major failure
leading to the terrorist attacks.
"Sharing of information is critical,"
said Ken Tucker, deputy commissioner
of the Florida Department of Law
Study: Exemptions increase since
TALLAHASSEE Public access to since the attacks.
government records has been steadily More than twice as many laws
limited by states since the Sept. 11 that restrict information were passed
terrorist attacks, according to a 50-state than those that offer greater access to
study by The Associated Press. Florida, government information.
however, has largely avoided this trend. Florida has actually seen a reduction
The AP study found that legislatures in the number of new open government
have passed more than 1,000 access laws exemptions passed each year, according
ACCESS MEETINGS CONTINUED
Election meeting causes stir
TALLAHASSEE A county
commissioner and several reporters were
removed from a March meeting between
Secretary of State Sue Cobb and Leon
County election officials.
Cobb's office asked Leon County
Commissioner Bob Rackleff to leave
the meeting room because Commission
Chairman Bill Proctor was already in the
The meeting was held to discuss a
state deadline to get voting equipment
for the disabled.
The commission was scheduled to
vote on purchasing election equipment
soon after the meeting.
Florida's Sunshine Law would
require the meeting to be open if both
commissioners were present to discuss
a matter likely to come before the
Capitol Police refused to keep
Rackleff and the reporters from the
meeting, according the The Associated
"Forgive us for this one-time meeting
to be a little tough on that," Cobb said.
"We are obligated to get this done in
a matter that benefits the state and the
Notice of the meeting was sent by
Leon County the day before, stating the
meeting would likely include discussion
on subjects which may appear before the
Leon County Board of Commissioners,
according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
Clerks push redaction changes
TALLAHASSEE Under pressure to confidential or exempt information
redact sensitive information from billions and replacing it with a number that
of pages of court documents by Jan. 1, would cross-reference a second, sealed
Florida's clerks of court are document. Sen. Nancy
pushing a bill that would TCT T S Argenziano, R-Dunnellon,
shift the burden of redaction U I TIO and Rep. Will Kendrick,
to filers and require clerks D-Carrabelle, are the bill's
to redact older records only if specifically sponsors.
requested to do so. The bill has raised fears that
The proposed bill would make individuals seeking to avoid
individual filers responsible for redacting embarrassment could abuse the process.
JACKSONVILLE Law enforcement
agencies in Florida and Georgia have
joined to form "the Google of law
The Southeast Law Enforcement
Alliance Project combines data from
police departments, sheriff's offices
and federal and state investigators into
one database accessible by participating
2 The Brechner Report May 2006
Enforcement. Tucker described the project
as "Google" for police.
The database is one of five in the United
States. The Naval Criminal Investigative
Service formed the project, and the Navy is
paying for the $2-million program.
Agencies can search for incidents, names,
aliases, addresses, mug shots, warrants and
other information across jurisdictions.
to the AP. In the legislative session prior
to the terrorist attacks, 16 new exemptions
were passed in Florida. That total has not
beet reached since the attacks.
Privacy, identity theft and protecting
proprietary business information are the
most common reasons cited for record
exemptions, according to the AP.
MIAMI-DADE COUNTY The
county is facing a lawsuit in connection
with its decision to open non-aviation
development at the Opa-locka Airport.
The suit alleges that the Opa-locka
Airport Development Task Force violated
the Sunshine Law by holding a private
Based on the task force's
recommendation, the Miami-Dade
County Commission adopted an
ordinance allowing non-aviation uses of
Such uses include retail stores and
Businessman Stephen O'Neal filed the
suit. O'Neal claims that during the task
force's first announced meeting on May
12, 2005, a member referenced an earlier
"meeting before the meeting."
"Besides the fact that this has an
appearance of being illegal, my concern
is that it spells the beginning of the end
of general aviation at Opa-locka Airport,"
O'Neal said, according to Miami Today.
O'Neal said the ordinance would not
affect his airplane teardown business,
but was worried small aeronautical
companies would be limited by
Mayor vetoes commission plan to rebut inaccuracies
MIAMI-DADE COUNTY The
mayor has vetoed a rule that would have
allowed county staff to correct the public
record during meetings of the Miami-
Dade County Commission.
The rule, proposed by Commissioner
Dennis Moss, was passed by a 6-5 vote
in February. Moss declined to challenge
the mayoral veto, citing a lack of votes
needed for an override. In order to
override Mayor Carlos Alvarez's veto, a
two-thirds majority was needed.
MIAMI Florida International
University officials confiscated
thousands of newspapers from
campus racks after student journalists
printed the name of a sexual assault
victim. Copies of The Beacon were
returned the next day.
The article reported on testimony
from the trial of an FIU public
safety officer convicted of sexually
assaulting an 18-year-old woman.
Beacon editor-in-chief, Harry
Coleman, said the publication of the
name was not completely intentional.
FIU's general counsel, Cristina
Mendoza, ordered the seizure of
the newspapers based on a Florida
statute that prohibits the publication
of information identifying a victim of
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ety of Newspaper Editors and the Joseph L Brechner
"Much to do has been made about
this resolution and basically all it does is
require that the manager, county attorney
and staff respond to issues when we've
got public testimony when there are
things that are inaccurate," Moss told The
Miami Herald prior to the veto.
Moss has a second controversial
proposal that may come before the
commission. That proposal would allow
Commission Chairman Joe Martinez to
respond to "inaccurate or misleading"
TALLAHASSEE As it considers
recommendations on how to balance
privacy concerns and open records, the
Florida Supreme Court is holding three
public hearings on the issue.
The first meeting was held March 1,
and representatives of court clerks, the
media and businesses that rely on court
files urged the court to allow electronic
availability of records. Two years ago,
the Court imposed a moratorium on mos
Internet court records. Since then, the
Court-appointed Committee on Privacy
statements made by the news media and the
public. Martinez could take out print and
broadcast ads as needed, without gaining the
But Martinez expressed concern about
the plan. "It has to be stricter, and there have
to be guidelines to stop some chairperson in
the future going berserk with the money,"
Martinez told The Herald.
The proposals came after criticism of the
commission over expanding development in
WELLINGTON The Wellington
Village Council unanimously voted down a
proposed resolution that would bar residents
from asking council members questions
or referring to them or staff in a "negative
manner" during meetings.
The resolution would have expanded
rules established in 1996 that prohibit
citizens from making "slanderous and
negative personal remarks" at meetings.
The council directed staffers to delete
phrases from the resolution related to how
residents should speak during meetings.
Village Attorney Jeff Kurtz defended the
resolution. "The object of the rules is to have
an effective, productive meeting," Kurtz
Officials said the rules were not proposed
in response to any particular incident.
and Court Records proposed several
recommendations, which the Court is now
considering. The Court must clarify which
Public Records Law exemptions apply
to court records and decide which court
records should be available.
"This is simply a stalling process," said
Manatee County Circuit Court Clerk R.B.
"Chips" Shore. "The moratorium, in my
opinion, fears the future. It's like stopping
;t the issuance of a driver's license because
we're afraid somebody's going to get in an
The Brechner Report U May 2006
Victim's name prompts FIU
to seize student newspapers
Tom Julin, attorney for the student
newspaper, contended that the statute
was struck down by the Florida
Supreme Court in 1995, and although it
was later amended, the current statute is
Julin said the victim's parents and
attorneys could have sought an order to
protect her identity.
"We have a general counsel that is
experienced. Her read was that it was
a violation of shield law," said Ronald
Berkman, FIU's acting provost.
"She acted on that basis, and it turns
out that she was incorrect," Berkman
The Beacon later removed the
victim's name from its Web site.
Officials speak out in favor of
Citizens should take advantage of mediation program
To quote Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, in
his opening comments in the 2005 Government-in-the-
Sunshine Manual, "State statutes and the Constitution
mandate that public agencies open their meetings and
records unless the Legislature determines that public
necessity warrants exemption." .
Kind of gives you goose bumps, eh?
But it was the general counsel for the attorney L
general who really made my ears perk up recently in a Charlie
presentation about how the laws are used to benefit the
public, as well as reporters and the like.
Pat Gleason, the AG's general counsel, addressed a gathering
of editorial writers in Tallahassee. She explained the function of
the Open Government Mediation Program, which she oversees,
The as well as the general benefits
B k Pto the citizenry of having such
Back Page laws.
By Charge n For practical purposes, the
By Charlie Brennn mediation program is something
even non-journalists should be particularly aware of.
Why? Only about one-third of those who use the program are
journalists. Another one-third are government employees, leaving
- you guessed it about one-third ordinary, everyday citizens.
Those "citizens" might come in the form of powerful business
people or simply concerned individuals.
A couple of quick scenarios:
A handful of mom-and-pop store merchants hear rumors
that paperwork to clear the way for a Wal-Mart Supercenter has
been filed with the local government. Wanting to know if their
livelihoods may soon be threatened, one of the merchants asks
a City Hall clerk for documents related to rezoning requests
or property transactions that may shed light on the rumor. The
government employee tells the merchant to buzz off because his
coffee break is coming up and he doesn't have immediate access
to that information.
A contractor makes a bid on a government construction job but
isn't awarded the contract. Curious about which competitor got
the job, he asks to see the proposal submitted by the company that
was awarded the contract to verify that it was the lowest and best
bid. He, too, is told to buzz off.
These examples, loosely based on a couple given by
Gleason, illustrate where the mediation program comes
in handy. Rather than a modest-income merchant taking
City Hall or county government or state government
to court, they can contact Gleason at the Attorney
General's Office in Tallahassee. Both parties must agree
to mediation and roughly three-quarters of the time
mediation will solve the problem.
rennan It's not fair to paint the government records custodian
as the bad guy in all cases. Certain information is exempt
and they have to exercise caution in releasing info. They
may seek mediation to make sure they're OK to release the info.
Gleason was quick to point out that denial of public records
often results from testy bureaucrats who jerk people around as
some sort of personal vendetta.
Sometimes people requesting information can be unpleasant,
indecisive or funny looking, but if it's public information, the
government's got to provide the information in a reasonable
amount of time.
There are few absolute time frames for the "reasonable
amount of time," but simple requests should result in getting
the information in a matter of minutes, while a request for 1,000
copies of a report may require two or three or four days.
If mediation is not agreed to, or fails, and the case goes to court,
the government pays for both parties' legal fees if records were
While Joe Taxpayer may correctly say, "My money's going to
pay for legal fees for some case I could care a hoot about," the
responsible agency will have some uncomfortable questions to
answer. In the case of a state agency, it will have to answer to the
What it gets down to is state government being accountable to
the people. The mediation program can save major headaches
and major dollars. It's one weapon in the Government-in-the-
Sunshine arsenal intended to protect the public. It's there for you.
Charlie Brennan is editor of the Citrus County Chronicle in Crystal
River, Fla. He has worked at newspapers on Florida s west c... i r., ild
past 24 years. This editorial originally appeared in the Chronicle and is
reprinted with permission.