Laurence Reisman: A few suggestions for public officials on Sunshine Sunday

By: Laurence Reisman, TC Palm

This column has been amended to clarify charges against JoAnn Faiella and Shannon Martin.


I’ll never forget sitting in an editorial board meeting about eight years ago and asking a first-time school board candidate how committed she would be to “transparency” if elected. She asked me what I meant.

It should not have surprised me that she seemed confused by the question.

Perhaps the better questions I should have asked were:

“How accountable will you be when it comes to ensuring that the public has swift access to school board records Florida law says should be made available in a reasonable period of time, normally less than 24 hours?”

“Do you agree that everything you do as a school board member — as part of serving every taxpayer of this county and receiving a full-time salary, insurance and a pension — may be critiqued by your bosses, the taxpayers?”

“Do you promise not to discuss school business with fellow board members behind closed doors?”

“Do you understand that if you do talk to fellow board members in private (or even at a local diner) your credibility will be questioned? Some people will suspect you were discussing the public’s business. They will tell others they saw you talking to your fellow board members.”

“Will you meet in private with an advocate of one side of an issue — a developer perhaps — while not speaking with the other side of the issue or his competitor? Or, will you meet with both sides together?”

I could go on and on about what transparency means to me. It’s being as open as humanly possible. It’s doing things you know are right so you’re not afraid to talk about them proudly.

So when I see public officials claim to be “public servants” but not be transparent, I wonder. And when I hear that two members of a city council spent 1,000 minutes gabbing together on their cellphones in three months — talking about Lord knows what — I’m stupefied.

Port St. Lucie Mayor JoAnn Faiella and Ron Bowen (now a suspended councilman) seem like nice people, but December’s revelations they spent almost 17 hours yacking on the phone together indicate to me they’re clueless. Clueless about the spirit of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law and clueless about how a transparent council operates.

They’ve not been charged with violating the law in connection with the calls. They were charged with sunshine violations in connection with other communications. Faiella and Shannon Martin, a council member, were civilly charged with deleting text messages from their city-issued phones.

(In Martin’s case, Assistant State Attorney Ryan Butler said he found “no intention and certainly no ill will on her part to destroy public records.” Martin took responsibility for the technical violation and paid a fine.)

Today is what the Florida Society of News Editors calls Sunshine Sunday. It began in 2002 as an effort to battle state legislators’ efforts to keep secret hundreds of documents from the public. The effort later was expanded to Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org) by national First Amendment advocates.

While some of us fight for transparency on the local and state levels, others focus on the national level. It’s a bipartisan issue. No matter who is in power, they’re under attack. Some folks more than others.

Nowadays, President Barack Obama is in the cross hairs of critics for, among other things, failing to give the media adequate access for pictures in the White House (after promising the most transparent administration in history). There have been a host of other criticisms over alleged cover-ups in connection with the tragedy in Benghazi, National Security Agency spying and the like.

Locally, the best two bits of advice I can offer any public official are:

1. Make decisions you expect to see on the front page of this newspaper. Be open, all the time. Don’t hide, like lobbyist-St. Lucie County Property Appraiser Ken Pruitt, and not answer legitimate questions about how your private business conflicts with your alleged “public service.”

2. If you are on a board, stop chatting with your fellow board members after you leave a meeting. Consider it the cost of doing business. It’s not necessarily illegal, but it’s like weaving down the road at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night. It doesn’t look good, and you’re likely to get stopped. It’s not worth it.

Happy Sunshine Sunday!

Email: Larry.Reisman@Scripps.com Twitter: @LaurenceReisman

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