Phil Lewis: Public records access important in Tallahassee and back home

Phil Lewis: Public records access important in Tallahassee and back home

A proposed state law that would have given Florida senators and representatives immunity from testifying or providing documents in civil lawsuits is dead — for now.

House leaders put the brakes on the legislation this past Monday after protests from the League of Women Voters, the First Amendment Foundation and newspaper editors, to name a few. (It was the topic of my column last Sunday.)

The bill had its roots in the upcoming court fight over the redrawing of voting boundaries in the state.

Our condemnation of the proposed law had nothing to do with the politically charged redistricting process. It was all about open government — the passage of yet another law that would have blocked access to public documents. It was a Sunshine Law issue for us.

House leadership saw the criticism differently.

“The hysterical reaction we’ve witnessed over the last few days has been ill-informed and politically motivated,” House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, told the News Service of Florida.

It’s dead for now. But, we’ll keep an eye on the grave.

While we’re on the topic of open government, a noteworthy exchange of thought took place at the last Collier County Commission meeting, which was held on Valentine’s Day.

Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock had just given a lengthy point-by-point review of his “audit” of a 14-month-old contention that the Ave Maria development in far eastern Collier County has had a positive fiscal impact on the county budget the past five years.

Essentially his report stated that he didn’t know if Ave Maria has had a negative, neutral or positive impact on county coffers.

Still, along the way, he raised numerous questions about the methodology used by Fishkind & Associates in December 2010. That methodology showed that Ave Maria has had a $10 million positive impact on the county.

Brock wondered aloud whether anyone else in the state even uses the methodology employed by noted real estate analyst Hank Fishkind and whether the formulas used to help reach the $10 million conclusion made sense.

When he was done, Fishkind took the floor and answered some of the questions raised by Brock.

After listening to Brock’s concerns and Fishkind’s answers, the commission voted unanimously to have a third party look at the fiscal impact Ave Maria has had between 2005 and 2010.

That seems wise. Fishkind is a paid consultant for the Barron Collier Cos., the lead Ave Maria developer.

What was curious that day was Brock’s concern that Fishkind had seen details of Brock’s report before the meeting. This allowed Fishkind to be prepared with answers to the questions raised by Brock at the public forum.

Brock, the custodian of so many of our public records, contended that his report was confidential until he presented it at that Tuesday morning meeting. He noted that he provided each of the five county commissioners a copy of his report the previous Friday. He was upset that one or more of the commissioners apparently passed it along to Fishkind, maintaining it should have remained secret until he could present it himself at the meeting.

We couldn’t disagree more and that Brock’s contention to the contrary is one of the reasons that legislative exemptions to the public record are so dangerous to open government.

We believe Florida law is quite clear. The second that Brock gave his report to each commissioner it became a public record with no exemptions, meaning if the commissioners could read it so could everyone else.

Brock obviously reads it differently and this isn’t the first time we’ve disagreed with him over Florida Statute 119.0713. It’s the special law that keeps details of an audit secret until it is given to the governmental body that commissioned it.

In the future, Brock would be doing the public a service by releasing audit reports as soon as they are complete, giving all interested parties and citizens a chance to review the findings before a hearing is held, in this case, by commissioners. That would foster leadership and just might cut down on “gotchas,” dueling barbs and unanswered questions.

Public record laws — and their exemptions — should be interpreted broadly and liberally in favor of the public’s right to know. The more transparency the better.

Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His email address is plewis@naplesnews.com.