Privatized hospital must comply with state open government laws
FLORIDA–In a unanimous mid-May decision, the state court of appeals in Daytona Beach ruled that a privately operated but formerly public hospital is subject to Florida’s open government laws.
West Volusa Memorial Hospital was originally created as a public hospital, built and equipped from city tax revenues. However, in the mid-1980’s, when the city found it could not operate the hospital in a financially viable manner, city commissioners leased the facility to a private, non-profit company. Terms of the privatization agreement exempted the hospital from the open record and open meetings requirements of state law.
The Daytona News-Journal Corporation sued the hospital after it refused to release operational records. The three-judge panel noted that while the lease agreement was drafted to circumvent the open government laws, “the issue before us is whether the parties were successful. We think not,” the court said.
The court held that the lessee was not simply providing materials or services to the city, but was “acting on behalf of” a public body. And, under the state constitution, the public has a right to view the records and attend meetings of a public body.
The court concluded that when a governing body contracts out a public obligation to a private entity, and the contractor “uses the same facilities or equipment acquired by public funds,” it is “extremely difficult” to legally avoid public scrutiny, “regardless of the legal skills lawyers applied to the task.” (News-Journal Corporation v. Memorial Hospital-West Volusa, Inc.; Media Counsel: Jonathan Kaney, Daytona Beach)