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Federal group's Everglades meetings should have been public

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    NMU         ELEVENTH CIRCUIT         Freedom of Information         Sep 18, 2002    

Federal group’s Everglades meetings should have been public

  • An alliance of federal and other agencies advising on water restoration in the Florida Everglades met illegally when it did not hold public meetings, a federal appellate court in Atlanta ruled in a case brought by the Miccosukee Indian Tribe.

The Miccosukee Indian Tribe in the Florida Everglades was illegally shut out of meetings organized to advise federal agencies on restoring the Everglades, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) ruled on Sept. 4. Those meetings should have been open to the public under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Reversing a lower court decision, the appeals panel said the Southern Everglades Restoration Alliance, which met to give advice on a water restoration project in the Everglades, was required by FACA to give notice of its meetings and hold them in public unless specific exemptions in the act allowed closure.

The alliance of personnel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, state agency representatives and consultants disbanded shortly after the Miccosukee sued, but the tribe did not abandon its lawsuit. It said federal agencies were still following the advice and slowing water restoration efforts beneficial to the tribe.

The court sent the case back to federal district court in Miami to determine if and how the Miccosukee were injured when the government followed the alliance’s recommendations, and to deliver a new ruling consistent with the appeals panel’s findings that FACA was not followed.

According to Miccosukee court papers, federal agencies in following advice from the alliance had delayed a plan to restore water flow in the Everglades that Congress ordered in 1989 for the tribe. Its reservation is on federal land and it holds 889,000 acres of state lands in perpetual lease. Most Miccosukee live on the border of Everglades National Park.

Recommendations by the alliance regarding protection of the Cape Sable Sparrow damaged water flow and created delays, and other recommended changes continue to delay water improvements, the tribe argued. It asked the court to prohibit the government from following any further alliance recommendations.

The lower court in September 2001 found that the alliance met the definition of “advisory board” covered by FACA because it was established to give advice to federal agencies, but that its meetings were not the special interest advisory boards Congress had intended to regulate when it enacted FACA.

The lower court said that the alliance fit the “plain language”defining an advisory board, but that it did not “fall within the spirit of the statute.”

The appeals court rejected that ruling. It said “unambiguous language in a statute is more than mere evidence of what Congress intended the law to be — it is the law.”

(Miccosukee v. SERA; attorney: Dexter Lehtinen, Miami) RD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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