Open government in Polk

Part 1 of 2

Let The Sun Shine

A black hole is an object in space whose gravity is so strong that it sucks in and absorbs everything nearby. Nothing escapes, not even light — thus the darkness and the name.

A figurative open-government black hole has been found in Florida. It is centered in Polk County and encompasses the county’s two largest cities: Lakeland on the west and Winter Haven on the east.

From this region of governmental darkness, details and documents of important city operations have been so fully obfuscated that the Lakeland Police Department’s lawyer told The Ledger that a report requested by case number was not related to the subject of the case, Bernardo Copeland Jr. of Lakeland. Only when the newspaper sent a photograph of the report’s cover sheet, showing Copeland’s name, did the department admit that the case involved him.

Today begins Sunshine Week, a national effort by news organizations to stress the importance of making governmental decisions in a manner open to public observation and participation, and making the records of governmental work open to the populace. After all, this is a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as President Abraham Lincoln put it.

That notion, this week and Florida’s longtime reputation as a leader among the states in requiring openness — government in the sunshine and public records — makes this an appropriate time to review the shameful efforts of the two preeminent Polk cities to hide portions of their work from their constituents.

‘Cat and Mouse’

Lakeland Police Chief Lisa Womack gave a clear-and-shocking explanation of governmental arrogance toward the public. She did so by telling The Ledger’s Jeremy Maready for a Jan. 6 article that her department sometimes plays a game of “cat and mouse” with news organizations when it does not want to release sensitive records. Public records belong to the people, whether sensitive or not, and whether requested by a news reporter or anyone else.

An important reason for records to be public is for the people of the city to judge the efficacy of their government and its agencies, such as the powerful Lakeland Police Department.

The Jan. 6 article dealt with the Nov. 24 shooting of Ralph Harper of Brandon at the Lakeland Farmer’s Market, for which Copeland was charged with attempted murder and armed robbery.

The Lakeland Police Department investigated Copeland in a Sept. 30 shooting, but did not charge him with aggravated battery in the first shooting until after Harper had been shot. It then withheld portions of related records when they were requested by The Ledger.

Speed Voting

Winter Haven has been working for more than two years to sell the city’s most desirable land — on which sits the Chain O’ Lakes Complex at the southeast corner of U.S. 17 and Cypress Gardens Boulevard, overlooking Lake Lulu. The idea was to convert the property into a private shopping, dining and lodging development called The Landings.

The City Commission approved sale of the land March 14, 2011, to a company of Taylor Pursell of Birmingham, Ala. By the beginning of this year, unending disputes between the two parties left the project logjammed. The commission voted Jan. 28 to terminate the contract.

The commission’s three most controversial recent votes — including that terminating The Landings’ contract — were taken without placing the issues on commission meeting agenda, reported The Ledger’s Ryan E. Little in an article Feb. 10.

That made it hard for residents to know that the issues would be decided in those meetings.

To abide by the spirit of the state Sunshine Law, the Florida Attorney General’s Office recommends listing such items on an agenda or putting them off until another meeting when they can be listed.

These practices by the top officials of Lakeland and Winter Haven have a shady feel. Such leaders should reject the black hole approach of holding everything within. Instead, they should show confidence in their operations by opening them wide to the people they serve.

Part 2 of 2

Lakeland, W. Haven Reticence

The relationship between people and their governments in Florida — city and county commissions, school boards and the Legislature, for instance — is meant to be straightforward.

Meetings of various elected and appointed bodies must be given public notice — often an agenda is posted — and most governmental records, with some narrow exemptions, are open to people to review and copy.

In Polk County’s two largest cities, Lakeland and Winter Haven, this simple recipe has become scrambled. The taste is bitter.

This is Sunshine Week, which began Sunday. News organizations and others use the week to stress the importance of open government and access to public records.

Among the matters taken up by Part 1 of this Sunshine Week editorial duo was important decisions of the Winter Haven City Commission. They were voted upon without the matters being listed on the commission meeting agendas, reported The Ledger’s Ryan E. Little in an article Feb. 10.

Also analyzed was the withholding of portions of public records by the Lakeland Police Department. They are connected to the case of Bernardo Copeland Jr. of Lakeland, reported The Ledger’s Jeremy Maready in an article Jan. 6. Copeland was accused of shooting a man in Lakeland in August, and then charged with attempted murder and armed robbery in the shooting of another man in November. Only afterward was he charged with aggravated battery in the first shooting.

Battery To Murder

Another long period between commission of a serious crime and the person accused of the crime being charged by Lakeland police in a shooting was reported by Maready in a Feb. 23 article.

Adrian Nesbeth has hit in the head with a sledgehammer Aug. 27, 2010. The case was not assigned to an investigator until Oct. 18, 2010, was not completed until Nov. 18, 2010, and a warrant for the arrest of Reginald “Snooky” Enzor was not issued until Dec. 20, 2010.

On Jan. 2, 2011, Enzor killed his wife, Radiah Anquenette Craft-Enzor, by stabbing her with a knife. He pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence in prison.

When asked by The Ledger for its Enzor records, the Lakeland Police Department said there was none.

Grand Jury

Following the articles about Lakeland police records, a grand jury began an investigation, which included testimony by Ledger Editor Lenore Devore and five reporters — a “very unusual step” to protect public information, said Publisher Jerome Ferson.

The grand jury made no criminal charges but made a presentment. That report is sealed, as the law requires, and time was allowed for appeals. It may be unsealed by court order.

Looking For Loopholes

Winter Haven has been trying to finalize a deal for a developer to transform its Chain O’ Lakes Complex — at U.S. 17 and Cypress Gardens Boulevard — into The Landings: shopping, dining and lodging.

On March 14, 2011, the City Commission voted to sell the land to a company owned by Taylor Pursell of Birmingham, Ala. On Jan. 28 of this year, after ongoing disagreements between the two parties, the city sent Pursell a letter terminating their contract.

Then City Attorney John Murphy asked the City Commission to hold off on eviction and allow “remediation discussions.” The commission approved in a 3-0 vote Feb. 11, reported Little in an article Feb. 12.

Since then, the city has refused a Ledger request to see a letter sent by Pursell to the city. Winter Haven cited a state law giving confidentiality to communication related to mediation. One, remediation discussions are not mediation. Two, mediation is a process ordered by a court, which has not been done.

Government is powerful, so the right of the people to oversee its actions by attending board meetings and reviewing documents is critical.

Lakeland, Winter Haven, and all local, regional and state agencies in Polk County should embrace these government-in-the-sunshine rights.

Leave a Reply