Op-Ed: Crimestopper Public Records: Anonymity Not an Option

When an organization such as Heartland Crimestoppers receives $234,000 in operating funds from a public agency, the requirement for it to conduct its business in public is obvious.

Several of the Crimestopper chapter’s top officials had no idea.

The chapter works in Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties, and is based in Lakeland. It receives the bulk of its funding as an annual grant from the Florida Attorney General’s Office. The grant for the 2010-2011 fiscal year is $234,000.

In Florida, governing or advisory boards fall under the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law. Crimestopper board meetings must be open to the public. Records of such organizations fall under the Public Records Law. Financial records, day-to-day notes and correspondence, and minutes of meetings, for example, are open to public inspection and copying.

The concerning conclusion that several chapter leaders did not know that Crimestoppers is required to comply with these open-government laws was made clear by a Feb. 18 article by The Ledger’s Jeremy Maready and Suzie Schottelkotte. Worse, several Crimestopper officials said the organization should not operate openly.

The article followed a Feb. 17 meeting of the Crimestopper board of directors. It met in response to a Ledger request for Crimestopper records prepared for the Attorney General’s Office over five years.

Prior to the start of the meeting, James Threlkel, one of seven board members present, told one of the reporters, “You are putting us in a very uncomfortable situation.” Further, Threlkel said, “We have enjoyed our anonymity and want to keep it that way.”

During the meeting, Executive Director Wayne Cross disputed that certain records are open. He said Crimestopper tax forms and its bylaws should not be public.

He said he was seeking legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office and Crimestoppers USA.

Board member Melony Bell, a Polk County commissioner, took an open approach. “I’m just really concerned that, as a county commissioner, I don’t want my name dragged through the process,” she told the board. “Let’s do whatever we can to get this behind us.”

That has been the path taken by Crimestoppers. It is making the requested records available.

This editorial coincides with Sunshine Sunday. The annual sunshine effort of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors illuminates attempts to limit the public’s participation in government. This program began in 2002 to point out legislative attempts to pass exemptions to the Public Records Law. It has spread nationally as Sunshine Week.

The Crimestopper grant comes from money that belongs to Florida’s residents. The organization operates on their behalf. The public has a right to know how the state money is being used and how Crimestoppers makes its decisions.

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