FOI Advocate Blog

The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited; we will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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December 10, 2013 12:22 PM

From The Palm Beach Post: WEST PALM BEACH — While lauding her educational accomplishments and her community service, a judge Monday rejected South Bay Commissioner Shirley Walker-Turner’s plea to set aside her conviction and fined her $250 for violating the state’s Sunshine Law.

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The punishment is similar to that given former South Bay Commissioners Linda Johnson and John Wilson. All three were convicted of privately agreeing to approve a $25,139 payment to former City Manager Corey Alston for unused vacation time. Johnson, who also went to trial, was fined $500. Wilson, who took a plea, was not fined.

Visit The Palm Beach Post for more.

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November 26, 2013 3:37 PM

From TCPALM: Port St. Lucie Councilman Ron Bowen has been charged with violating the state’s open records laws and civil infractions have been levied against Mayor JoAnn Faiella and Councilwoman Shannon Martin in connection with the dismissal of former City Manager Greg Oravec, State Attorney Bruce Colton said Monday.

Visit TCPALM for more.

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November 26, 2013 3:27 PM

From Huffington Post: Tallahassee, Fla., attorney Steven Andrews filed a new lawsuit against Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday, alleging that the Republican governor's administration failed to release public records, according to The Associated Press.

Andrews, a frequent critic of Scott, filed separate lawsuits against the governor, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Department of State. The lawsuits accuse the Scott administration of tampering with a top aide's calendar, using private email accounts for state business and stalling for more than 18 months to supply another aide's text messages. Bondi is alleged to have refused to release meeting notes kept on her iPad.

Visit Huffington Post for more.

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November 15, 2013 12:13 PM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week. While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

R.I. activist files open-records complaint in search for information on payments made to House Speaker Fox

image of Access keyPROVIDENCE — The citizen-activist who filed an ethics complaint against House Speaker Gordon D. Fox in connection with his role as a closing attorney for the troubled Providence Economic Development Partnership loan program has now filed a related open-records complaint with the attorney general’s office. Judith Reilly lodged the open-records complaint against the PEDP after the city agency advised her it had no records of how much Fox was paid for his services as PEDP’s closing attorney from 2005 through early 2010. The complaint is pending.

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Ombudsman warns ruling could lead to Iowa open meeting violations

A ruling Thursday by a state board opens the door for Iowa governments to elude a law requiring that the public be given at least 24-hour notice before meetings are held, Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider warned. That warning came in a meeting just before the Iowa Public Information Board, an enforcement body of the state’s public meeting and open record laws, voted unanimously in favor of a ruling written by the board’s director, Keith Luchtel.

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N.J. court upholds OPRA request by Northern Valley Regional parents

Hackensack — Northern Valley Regional High School parents, who said that the school board did not comply with the Open Public Records Act to provide access to records regarding a random drug testing policy, received a small victory when a Bergen County judge ruled that the school district must turn over fifty-seven documents for his review. Superior Court Assignment Judge Peter Doyne rejected the district’s argument that the request made by a group of parents for the documents was improper at a hearing on Nov. 7, and ruled that the district must send 57 withheld documents regarding random drug testing to the court for further review.

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Editorial: Public has a right to yawn

To take a famous Shakespeare quote and turn it on its ear: “A thorn by any other name would be as sharp.” In New Hampshire, it’s called the Right-to-Know Law. They call it the Public Records Law in Vermont, the Public Records Act in Massachusetts and it’s known as the Sunshine Law in Florida. At the federal level, it’s known as the Freedom of Information Act.

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Editorial: Bringing Mass. into the digital age

Easy access to public records is necessary for government accountability. But Massachusetts’ public record law is out of date. State agencies routinely charge 20 cents a page for documents that can be delivered in an electronic format, and requests for documents often go months without reply. Fortunately, an amendment filed by Representative Peter Kocot of Northampton would correct these deficiencies. Legislators should embrace it.

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Limits on fees for public records passed by Michigan House committee

LANSING — Public bodies would be limited in what they could charge for copying public records under the Freedom of Information Act under a bill passed by a House committee Tuesday. The bill would allow public bodies to charge $0.10 per page for documents requested by anyone under the Freedom of Information Act. They also could charge labor costs of up to three times the minimum wage in Michigan of $7.40 per hour.

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News groups appeal order to seal court records, Idaho

BOISE, Idaho -- A coalition of news organizations has asked a federal appeals court to order the release of sealed witness testimony and exhibits in an antitrust trial involving the expansion of a health care system. The organizations challenged a protective order issued earlier this year by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill that allowed attorneys for St. Luke's Health System, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, the Federal Trade Commission and others to keep a large amount of testimony and evidence hidden from public view.

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Former Washington auditor calls for public access to records

PASCO – “Creating open public records is not a partisan issue,” said Brian Sonntag, former Washington state auditor. “Citizens have the right to expect nothing less.” Sonntag’s comments were made at the Pasco Red Lion yesterday morning, Tuesday, during the Washington Policy Center’s first-ever Solutions Summit.

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Tennessee DCS posts documents relating to child deaths

The Department of Children’s Services will now post on its website documents relating to its internal investigations into the deaths and near deaths of children. The agency already has posted more than 3,600 pages of documents relating to the deaths or injuries suffered by 64 children in Tennessee during the last half of 2012. All identifying information has been redacted.

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Will open data make Honolulu gov’t more transparent?

The Honolulu City Council today unanimously passed an open data bill that aims to make government more transparent. If Mayor Kirk Caldwell signs the bill it will essentially help to open up reams of government statistics and data in a format that can be manipulated to build apps, create visualizations of complex information and help citizens analyze government services.

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Duffey looks to streamline access to public records in Ohio

State Rep. Mike Duffey (R-Worthington) has introduced a series of bills designed to make it easier to find and understand data about local and state government. Called the DataOhio Initiative, the program would promote open standards and make Ohio government more accountable to Ohioans, he said.

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Groveland Mayor Jim Gearhart quits amid Sunshine-law probe

GROVELAND — Mayor Jim Gearhart, who's been under fire from residents and city employees amid an investigation for possible Sunshine Law violations, stepped down on Wednesday. Gearhart, a member of the City Council since 2007 who was elected mayor last year, blamed "politics" and "brutal attacks" for his resignation in a letter he delivered to Interim City Manager Willie Morgan.

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Florida appeals court rules teacher data is public record

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- A Florida appeals court says that data used to prepare teacher evaluations is a public record. The 1st District Court of Appeal on Tuesday sided with The Florida Times-Union in a lawsuit the newspaper filed against the Florida Department of Education.

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November 13, 2013 4:55 PM

From The Florida Times-Union: The Times-Union sued the state in February for the data’s release. Tuesday’s decision reverses a lower circuit court ruling in March, which concluded the data were exempt from public inspection.

According to state law a teacher’s evaluation is not subject to disclosure under the public records law until a year following the school year in which the evaluation was given, but “it does not follow that any information or data used to prepare the evaluation is likewise exempt from disclosure,” the appeal court ruled.

Visit The Florida Times-Union for more.

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November 13, 2013 4:51 PM

From Palm Beach Post: WEST PALM BEACH — South Bay City Commissioner Shirley Walker-Turner will be sentenced Dec. 9 after being convicted last week for violating the state’s Sunshine law, a Palm Beach County court judge decided Tuesday.
Gov. Rick Scott has not yet decided whether he will remove the longtime commissioner from office — again — a spokesman said. Scott will wait until the legal proceedings are complete, said spokesman John Tupps.

Visit Palm Beach Post for more.

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November 8, 2013 10:56 AM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week. While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

Brevard corruption case morphs into public records battle

image of Access key(Nov 8, 2013) In hopes of avoiding involvement in a public corruption case, an economic development operation in Brevard County contends it is not subject to the state’s open records laws. The nonprofit Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast (EDC) in Rockledge has denied records requests, arguing that it is not a public entity. That debate is now in front of a judge, and the decision in the case could set a precedent in how economic development agencies are viewed in terms of Florida’s transparency laws.

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Florida investigation highlights public-records conflict

(Nov 8, 2013) An attempt by state insurance regulators to listen to a reporter’s un-aired recordings highlights potential for tension between legal protections for journalists and laws that guarantee the public’s right to access government records. Last week, WFSU reporter Lynn Hatter produced a story about people who were marketing health insurance plans in Tallahassee under the banner of the “Obamacare Enrollment Team.”

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Editorial: Expanded open records law key to restoring Penn State's credibility: Lowman S. Henry

(Nov 7, 2013) Penn State University is fighting efforts in Harrisburg to place it and the other state-related universities - Temple and Lincoln universities and the University of Pittsburgh -- under provisions of the commonwealth's Open Records law. This would require the folks in Happy Valley to provide the same transparency as other beneficiaries of the taxpayers' largess. As the botched search for a new president of the state's marquee institution illustrates, the need for such a law clear and compelling.

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Jacksonville judge hears arguments over public records access in Dunn case

(Nov 7, 2013) JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Circuit Judge Russell Healey heard arguments Thursday morning regarding his plan to delay the release of public documents in the Michael Dunn case until he can review them. Healey's decision followed the highly publicized release of Dunn's jailhouse letters, which many considered racially inflammatory.

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Documents show no actual threat of litigation

 

(Nov 6, 2013) Conflicting legal opinions on an issue don’t constitute a “real and tangible threat” of litigation for which a governing body may close a meeting, as the Richmond County Board of Elections did last week, two attorneys who work on behalf of open government said Wednesday. In response to an open records request for documents showing an actual threat of litigation, the city’s General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie and Senior Counsel Wayne Brown provided only legal opinions and existing law as to why the meeting was closed. What they provided didn’t show that, said David Hudson, attorney for Georgia Press Association and The Augusta Chronicle, and Hollie Manheimer, executive director of Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

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Big Isle committee rejects Hawaii Sunshine Law change

(Nov 6, 2013) KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii (AP) — The Big Island's council is poised to block an attempt to change Hawaii's open meetings law. A Hawaii County Council committee rejected a proposal from Maui County to create an exemption to the Sunshine Law, allowing more than two council members to meet without having to take minutes or make reports on the discussion, as long as meetings are open to the public.

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Elliot Spitzer ‘necessary party’ to FOIA action filed by former AIG officer, N.Y. App. Ct. Rules

(Nov 6, 2013) NEW YORK — Former New York attorney general Elliot Spitzer is a necessary party to a case in which a former AIG officer seeks emails generated from Spitzer’s private email account regarding allegations that AIG and its officers engaged in fraudulent reinsurance transactions, a New York appellate court has ruled. On Oct. 17, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, remanded the case to a trial court for a determination of whether the court has jurisdiction over Spitzer.

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Judge finds Mississippi auditor defied her public records order; AG Jim Hood appeals to keep DMR records secret

(Nov 6, 2013) Acting in concert with the U.S. attorney for Mississippi's Southern District, the State Auditor's Office defied a court order by whisking away public records the Sun Herald was granted the right to review, the judge in the case concluded. Judge Jennifer Schloegel ordered the State Auditor's Office on Oct. 31 to return business records to the Mississippi Department of Resources so they could be copied for public inspection. Her ruling came in a lawsuit the Sun Herald filed almost 10 months ago to secure the records.

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Elbridge village denies request to make public resolution suspending fire chief

(Nov 6, 2013) Elbridge, NY - An executive with the state Committee on Open Government says the Village of Elbridge was wrong to deny Syracuse.com's request to see a resolution suspending the Elbridge fire chief that was voted on at a public meeting. Syracuse.com last week asked to read the resolution or the minutes of the Oct. 14 public meeting in which the village board voted to suspend Fire Chief Bill Champlin for 30 days pending a judicial committee's determination of his status with the fire department.

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University of Central Florida: Fraternity discipline records protected by FERPA

(Nov 6, 2013) FLORIDA — Responding to a public records lawsuit filed earlier this year, the University of Central Florida told a judge this week the school cannot provide student journalists unredacted records relating to Greek fraternities’ disciplinary hearings because the records are protected under a federal education privacy law. In UCF’s answer Monday to the lawsuit KnightNews.com, a student-run online news organization, filed in February, attorney Richard Mitchell said the school has given the news organization all of the records it is allowed to under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, even though reporters submitted “overly-broad” public records requests and did not follow university policies while doing so.

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PA. Office of Open Records sides with Times Leader

(Nov 6, 2013) The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has 30 days to provide an anonymous letter alleging wrongdoing by PPL during a 2011 storm response over to The Times Leader or file an appeal with the state’s Commonwealth Court, the state’s Office of Open Records has ruled. The letter, written by a person alleging to be a PPL employee though he or she did not sign their name, was used as the basis for a settlement agreement between the electric company and the state’s PUC. The settlement, approved by the commission last Thursday, included a $60,000 civil penalty levied against the Allentown-based utility.

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Nebraska lawmakers set to double-team records of arena board

(Nov 5, 2013) OMAHA — “We tried,” City Attorney Paul Kratz tells Nebraska Watchdog. Tried, but came up short nearly a decade ago, to open up the books of the powerful arena board. Now, following a series of reports by Nebraska Watchdog, at least two lawmakers are ready to take their shot. State Sen. Brad Ashford’s office is writing a “sunshine bill” which, according to Ashford, will be introduced by Sen. Ernie Chambers when the legislature returns in January.

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Investigator: Missing Utah AG records 'troubling'

(Nov 5, 2013) SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Investigators working for a panel of Utah lawmakers have uncovered a "very disturbing pattern" of records missing from Attorney General John Swallow's work and personal computers, the panel's special counsel said Tuesday. Attorney Steven Reich told the House Special Investigative Committee that a large number of Swallow's electronic records, including emails, are missing.

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October 25, 2013 12:43 PM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week. While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

OU student sues school over refusal to release parking-ticket records

image of Access keyWhat started out as a curiosity about whether certain students received favorable treatment on parking tickets has evolved into a legal battle pitting the state Open Records Act against federal privacy law concerns and a student against the university he attends. Joey Stipek sued the University of Oklahoma earlier this year after administration officials refused to make public an electronic database the school maintained of parking tickets issued by its personnel.

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Kohr's Frozen Custard failed electrical inspection before boardwalk fire (N.J.)

The candy business seated above the wiring and electrical equipment that sparked a massive boardwalk fire last month passed its electrical inspection after superstorm Sandy, but the adjoining custard shop did not, a NJ Press Media investigation found. Biscayne Candies earned approval from a state electrical inspector in May to have its power restored before opening for the summer, according to records in the borough’s building department.

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Treehouse dispute spurs Florida Sunshine Law investigation

The State Attorney's Office has asked Bradenton Police to investigate a possible Sunshine Law violation by City of Holmes Beach officials. ... Attorneys for Richard Hazen and Lynn Tran, who own a controversial treehouse in Holmes Beach, sent a letter to State Attorney Ed Brodsky on Sept. 5, alleging that the Holmes Beach city commission violated the Sunshine Law on Aug. 29 when they met with their city attorneys to discuss the treehouse case.

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Wisconsin court rejects state's argument that media shouldn't intervene in 'John Doe' case

The Court of Appeals is rejecting the state's argument that media companies and First Amendment advocates should not be allowed to intervene in a criminal appeal of one of Scott Walker's former aides. In an order filed Wednesday, Judge Patricia Curley wrote that there's no indication the state is pushing for the unsealing of certain records in the case, which is what media companies want in the case.

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Editorial: Delaware Chancery Court process should be open to public

Delawareans are proud of the state’s court system. They recognize that Delaware’s courts not only serve the public in criminal and civil matters. They also play a powerful role in the state’s economy. That is particularly true of Delaware’s Chancery Court. It has a national reputation for depth, sophistication and impartiality. Not only that, many of Chancery’s business-vs.-business cases bring in revenue for the state. Important as that is, we must remember that Chancery is part of the state’s legal system and is therefore accountable to the public.

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Indiana Board of Education member asking court to dismiss Glenda Ritz's lawsuit

Another day, another round of contention in the power struggle between the state’s voter-elected superintendent and the governor-appointed board of education. One day after Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz sued the board, contending that members were operating in secret without her knowledge, a board member said Wednesday his attorney was filing a motion to dismiss her suit. The state’s attorney general also weighed in, saying he hoped to help resolve the matter without going to court.

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Secrecy surrounds fraud allegations in New Mexico mental health audit

In June, New Mexico’s Behavioral Health care system was thrown into chaos — the state abruptly froze Medicaid payments to more than a dozen mental health providers in the state after an audit allegedly found widespread fraud. Those providers served nearly 30,000 patients, but neither the public nor those accused have been able to see the actual audit because the state says an investigation continues.

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Editorial: Open records law should apply to Penn State, other taxpayer-supported institutions

There was a curious moment — or a series of curious moments — during Monday’s state Senate committee hearing on proposed changes to the state’s open records law as it pertains to Penn State and the commonwealth’s three other state-related universities. Lawyers for Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln argued that the universities -- supported by state taxpayers, but not considered state schools -- should be exempt from aspects of the open records law because they are not state agencies and do not enjoy the state’s sovereign immunity from lawsuits.

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Proposal would allow Florida universities to withhold names of candidates for top jobs

Those seeking jobs as provost, dean or president at one of Florida’s public universities could receive public records protection over their names and work history being released to the public under a law proposed by state Rep. Dave Kerner. Under the measure, universities could withhold names and resume information on job candidates seeking key executive posts, similar to the practice in states including like Pennsylvania, Delaware and Michigan, which have far weaker public records provisions than Florida.

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Penn State record access debated

HARRISBURG - Fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child abuse sex scandal put higher education officials on the defensive Monday as they fought to keep their academic exemption under the state open records law. The exemption for Penn State University and three other state-related universities has existed since the law's enactment in 2009. Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, and others have proposed ending it as part of an open records law rewrite.

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South Dakota newspaper presses FOIA fight for food stamp payment data

South Dakota's Argus Leader newspaper urged a federal appeals court Wednesday to reverse a ruling blocking the newspaper from receiving data on how much the federal government pays to stores that redeeem food stamp benefits. Jon Arneson, an attorney for the newspaper, told a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit that a lower court judge misinterpreted the law by ruling that a confidentiality provision for retailer applications allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withhold all data on payments to those retailers. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the newspaper requested the data on annual payments to each retailer approved to take part in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

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Open records at issue in Detroit conference

Detroit— Last year, Wayne County informed reporters that it would cost some $1.8 million if they wanted months of emails from Executive Robert Ficano and three former aides. The explanation: The county’s computer network would need to be backed up to retrieve a single email and lawyers would need to spend 66,000 hours — about 7 1/2 years working around the clock — reviewing all the data.

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October 24, 2013 11:57 AM

From Herald-Tribune: VENICE - Members of the Venice City Council say they need to be more cautious than ever about what they say, to whom they say it, and where and when they say it.

If they do not, the city may be accused of violating Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law and find itself in court — again. Past violations cost the city more than $1.5 million.

Visit Herald-Tribune for more.

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October 24, 2013 11:54 AM

From Herald-Tribune: SARASOTA - Notes from a private meeting earlier this month between city officials and a downtown business group appear to support allegations that two city commissioners violated the Sunshine Law.

The notes detail a wide-ranging discussion of the city’s homelessness issues, and appear to undercut claims that city business was not discussed.

Visit Herald-Tribune for more.

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October 18, 2013 10:02 AM

From The Daytona Beach News Journal: Today’s column is about why it’s important for government to operate in the sunshine.

But before I become philosophical, let me get right to the main point: Consider this my personal invitation to you to attend the 2013 Sunshine Seminar on Wednesday, Oct. 23, hosted by Daytona State College.

The seminar will be at the college’s Mori Hosseini Center. It is sponsored by The Daytona Beach News-Journal and the League of Women Voters. The main speaker is Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation and Florida’s top expert on the state’s open meetings and public records laws.

If you are a citizen who wants to learn about the state’s sunshine laws and how to use them to keep track of local and state government activities, then you ought to attend this seminar. Public officials who want to ensure that they conduct the public’s business in the sunshine – and most public officials want to do just that – also should attend.

Visit The Daytona Beach News Journal for more.

The Florida First Amendment Foundation is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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October 14, 2013 9:04 AM

From Student Press Law Center: FLORIDA — A Florida representative has reintroduced a bill that, if enacted, would exempt public colleges from having to disclose the names of executive candidates.

Meetings where officials discuss identifying information of presidential, provost or dean candidates would also be exempt from the state’s open meetings act. Public colleges would be required to release the names of finalists at least 21 days before officials meet publicly to make a final selection. If passed, it would take effect Oct. 1, 2014.

[...]

Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, said she has “no idea” why Kerner reintroduced the bill and said she hasn’t seen any evidence that the state’s public records and open meetings laws have made it difficult to find strong executives.

“To say we don’t get good candidates for these top positions because of our open government laws is pure hogwash,” she said. “Look at the presidents of our state universities, who were all hired under the sunshine, by the way. Can anyone say we could have done better? Who makes the final list is as important as who does not.”

Visit Student Press Law Center for more.

The Florida's First Amendment Foundation is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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