NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · FLORIDA · Freedom of Information · March 24, 2006
Closed meeting did not violate law, state attorney says
March 24, 2006 · A week and a half after Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb shut reporters out of an announced public meeting in her Tallahassee office, a state attorney told the Tallahassee Democrat that the incident did not violate Florida’s open meetings law.
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs wrote the Democrat in response to a letter from Executive Editor Robert Gabordi asking him to outline how he would prevent similar incidents in the future, the Democrat reported Wednesday. Gabordi also sent the letter to Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist.
“Since we find that no crime occurred and no arrests were made there will be no further action taken by the State Attorney’s Office,” Meggs wrote, according to the Democrat.
Jim Baltzelle, Florida bureau chief for The Associated Press, also wrote a letter of protest after police were called March 13 to remove AP and Democrat journalists from a hallway outside Cobb’s office. Although public notice of the meeting on voting issues had been given the day before, Cobb turned away a county commissioner and closed the meeting to reporters.
“I’ve always said I have no objection to the press, but we do make faster progress without people having to look at cameras — that’s a fact,” she told reporters, according to several press accounts.
The incident occurred on the first day of Sunshine Week, a national celebration of open government that began in 2001 in Florida with Sunshine Sunday.
According to the Democrat’s account, Capitol Police officers arrived in the hallway outside Cobb’s office when reporters refused her request to leave. However, since no trespassing complaint had been filed, the police did not stop reporters and Leon County Commissioner Bob Rackleff from entering the meeting.
Rackleff went in, and the reporters followed. Cobb then stopped the meeting.
When Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho explained to Rackleff that the talks would not continue if he stayed, he agreed to leave. Because one county commissioner was already inside the meeting, Rackleff’s presence would have triggered open meeting requirements under Florida law, which says the presence of two or more members of a board who might discuss issues of future board consideration means a meeting is open and requires notice.
Rackleff agreed to leave, and the meeting was closed.
Cobb has said that since public notice of the meeting did not come from her office, the meeting was not open. At the time of the meeting, she said she and others in the room were making “interesting progress” without the press, the Democrat reported.
Cobb probably did not violate the Sunshine Law, but she seems to have thwarted the county commissioners’ attempt to comply with it, said Barbara A. Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. Petersen also wrote a letter of protest about the issue, addressing it to Cobb with copies to Crist and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“Anything done in an attempt to avoid the law can be a violation,” Petersen said, adding that the presence of even one board member can trigger the law if that person is acting on behalf of an entire board. “I think it demanded a greater investigation than what appears to have been done by the prosecutor.”
Gabordi told the Democrat for Wednesday’s edition that there is more at stake than the law.
“For us, of course, the bigger issue is not whether the law was violated, but what did Secretary Cobb and [Leon] County Commission Chairman [Bill] Proctor have to hide?” he said.
Along with her letter, Petersen sent Cobb a copy of a Government-in-the-Sunshine manual, a guide for the state’s open meetings and open records laws.
Petersen and others are waiting to see if the attorney general or governor respond to the situation, and what the Democrat and AP will choose to do next.
Gabordi did not return repeated calls for comment