Reporter Kicked Out: When Public Officials Abuse Florida’s Sunshine Law, With Lawmakers’ Blessing
FlaglerLive | July 22, 2015
By Nancy Smith
Here’s a good example why I wish lawmakers would pause for a minute and think before they gouge out another exemption from Florida’s Sunshine Law.
If any one of them had tried, as an average citizen, to attend Tuesday’s strategic planning day at the Palm Beach County Health Care District, they would have been out of luck. Goodbye, go home. “The meeting is closed to the public.”
Oh, they would have been indignant, mad as a hornet, but District General Counsel Nicholas Romanello apparently had every right.
Thanks to lawmakers.
They made that closed-door meeting legal — maybe not them personally, but the exemption to the Sunshine Law came from a vote of the Florida Legislature. Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was enacted in 1967. Today, that part of the Sunshine Law dealing with open government can be found in Chapter 286 of the Florida Statutes.
And what the hospital exemption did on Tuesday is get a Palm Beach Post reporter ejected from a meeting that decided the fate of a small, rural public hospital — grossly mismanaged and fined by the state for its $16 million in losses — in one of the poorest communities not just in the state, but in the nation.
Their excuse for meeting behind closed doors? They planned to “discuss possible alliances with other hospitals.”
Yeah, right. But what else did they talk about?
What’s so heinous about Sunshine Law exemptions is, they’re so easy to abuse. The law doesn’t say meetings must be closed to plot district holdings strategy, or anything else for that matter. It says they can be closed.
What that does — what it did in this case — is give the Health Care District cover to talk about virtually whatever they like.
The Post editorial board had written Sunday about the plight of Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade, a hospital with an average daily census of 26.4, down from 30 in 2011. At that time the Health Care District hired a consultant to try to improve Lakeside’s market share. “Its emergency room has held its own, with 24,500 visits last year,” the Post reported. “The hospital opened just six years ago with 70 beds.”
Clearly, the Post’s coverage had made the District uncomfortable.
According to reporter Stacey Singer, when the District met later in open session, like a bolt out of the blue, CEO Dr. Ron Wiewora offered his resignation, effective in 60 days, following a 4-3 vote of “no confidence.” That must have been some “alliances with other hospitals” discussion.
Florida’s Sunshine Law, once the strongest and best in the nation, has problems year after year, legislative session after legislative session.
I like to think legislators believe as I do, that when police officers, firefighters or any other taxpayer-funded public employees including Health District employees make mistakes, they must be accountable to the taxpayers. What mistakes were made here? Who pays the consequences? And what are the consequences? Particularly for the citizens of Belle Glade.
I don’t have to be a resident of Palm Beach County to understand the importance of Lakeside Medical Center to Belle Glade, a “city” deep in the shadows of glitzy Palm Beach, 45 miles to the east. I’ve seen it for myself.
Many of the area’s residents were drawn there years ago by the opportunity to work in the vegetable fields that surrounded the town. Official unemployment in Belle Glade, population about 17,000 — nicknamed “Muck City” for the fertile soil and phenomenal high school football team — hovers around 16 percent, although the mayor believes it’s closer to 40 percent. In the Glades, the “official” jobless rate has always been a joke because so few people are even on the books. Many of the agricultural jobs disappeared as vegetable production turned into sugar growing, now largely mechanized.
In 2010, last time I visited, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office estimated that half of the young men in Belle Glade between the ages of 18 and 25 had felony convictions. The town’s migrant quarter resembled something on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, or Kampala in Uganda. The New York Times wrote that some families were catching rainwater to survive because their utilities had been cut off for nonpayment.
No public functionary in Palm Beach County ever should meet behind closed doors about Belle Glade. We plain shouldn’t let them.
Florida’s Sunshine Law, once the strongest and best in the nation, has problems year after year, legislative session after legislative session. There aren’t just too many exemptions. The penalties for violations are weak. The burden of proof too often falls on citizens to prove that records are open, despite the law’s stated intent that records and meetings shall be presumed open.
The bigger problem as I see it, though, is that lawmakers as a whole — not all, but certainly too many of them — don’t care enough about public accountability to do anything about it.
Nancy Smith is the editor of Sunshine State News. She started her career at the Daily Mirror and The Observer in London before spending 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News as managing editor and associate editor. She was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1990s. Reach her by email here, or follow her on twitter at @NancyLBSmith.