Text messages peel back the curtain on key vote: FOI at Work

A nice piece of FOI work, unveiling text messages flying back and forth as power brokers in Orange County, FL shot down a proposed sick pay provision…

New details emerged Wednesday in a WESH 2 News investigation of text messaging by Orange County commissioners during that key vote on a sick pay ballot measure.

The measure was defeated Sept. 11, but only now are some of the messages between elected leaders and the powerful lobbyists who apparently shot down the initiative being released.

The measure would have required businesses with more than 15 workers to offer paid sick time to all employees. The group gathered a petition to put the

Texting on a qwerty keypad phone

Texting on a qwerty keypad phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

measure on the November ballot.

The messages show there were ongoing discussions before and during the public hearing on the sick pay referendum.

WESH also provided a nice blow-by-blow account of the text message traffic here.

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Florida Governor Vows to Make E-Mails Public In Record Time Using New System

Hmmmm….I am intrigued by this system, but also kind of tickled by some of the details in the story of its launch:

Gov. Rick Scott launched a new open records program Thursday dubbed “Project Sunburst,” designed to give the public — and the media — access to the emails to and from the governor and 11 top staff within seven days of writing them.

To access the system, click here. Domain and password are “sunburst”.

…It also helps Scott the governor who has struggled to repair his open government-averse reputation. Weeks into office, the governor’s transition staff inadvertently destroyed emails and the governor, wary of the state’s Sunshine Law, refused to use email until eight months into office.

…Even under the current system, MacNamara himself avoids building a public record. A Herald/Times review of five months of the chief of staff’s emails finds that MacNamara prefers phone calls and hand-written notes to email when he communicates.

The governor’s top advisor routinely responds to even mundane concerns by urging others to “come see me” or “call me” to avoid a paper trail. MacNamara said it’s because he’s a bad typist and prefers to have face-to-face conversations.

My ABSOLUTE favorite nugget:

When asked about Sunburst in an email last week, MacNamara replied “it’s a secret.”

A fine example of journalism doing untold damage to sunshine…

This kind of stuff makes my head literally ache: a story that allows a proponent of secrecy to make age-old arguments against open searches completely, utterly unchallenged by, well, fact…

Florida’s open records laws will impact the quality of applicants seeking the Duval County Public Schools superintendent position, according to the president of a national education nonprofit that trains school boards.

“It’s the biggest problem you have,” said Cathy Mincberg, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems, “[is] how to deal with sunshine.”

Mincberg said the state’s open records laws will weigh heavily on candidates’ eagerness to apply for Duval’s position — particularly candidates with good relationship with their current school boards.

“They do not get up and apply for places where they are going to be humiliated,” Mincberg said. “Having your name out there is a humiliation because it says to your own board that, ‘I’m thinking about leaving you.’ ”

OK, so where to begin here? With the fact that all across the state of Florida, for decades, EVERY candidate in a similar position has faced the terror of a public search and somehow still mustered the courage to apply for a high-paying, taxpayer-funded, PUBLIC POSITION?!?!

Have any of the hundreds of other superintendents in Florida not walked the same path? Are we to believe that hundreds of the absolute best superintendent candidates in the state are instead teaching because they simply can not bear the scrutiny of a public search? That they are ignoring the higher pay, power and perks of the superintendent’s job for fear of the sunshine? Balderdash. Utter bunk. And not one source in the state of Florida offered the chance to knock this down?

I know a half dozen great sources they could have called. Heck, they do, too!

Florida bill would usher breathtaking secrecy into private prison deals…

Prison doors

Image by rytc via Flickr

It never, ever ceases to amaze me how lawmakers can embrace secrecy when farming out prisons to for-profit corporations that have such a well-documented history of abuse, corruption and mismanagement. Could they not just do a little reading about the many problems private prisons have caused in, say, Texas? I mean, heck, a little Google search, people?

 

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Casey Anthony Trial: The Hits Just Keep Comin’

A bad trial with a disliked outcome produces a legislative overreach of titanic proportions:

Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, on Thursday filed a bill that would call for a nine-month “cooling off” period after jurors are dismissed before they could consider accepting money for sharing details about a trial.

The moves comes just days before Casey Anthony is released from jail after a jury last week found her not guilty in the murder of her child.

Randolph’s Juror Compensation Bill, HB 51, would make violations of the law a third-degree felony punishable by fines of up to $10,000.

Concerns are that the prospect of being paid to discuss a trial might influence a jury’s thinking during the case.

“The purpose of this legislation is to preserve the integrity of the jury process,” Randolph said in a prepared statement. “It balances the First Amendment freedom of speech with the Sixth Amendment guarantee to a fair trial. The United States Supreme Court has always held that the preservation of a fair trial must be maintained at all costs. I believe that means fairness for the state as well as the defendant.”

Randolph said he will also file legislation that would keep the names of jurors private, unless individuals choose to come forward.

So….that nine month “cooling off period” might be more aptly named the “secrecy period” or “total and utter secrecy period,” in all trials in Florida, regardless of media attention of fact pattern, forever and ever. Nice, Rep. Randolph. You got your name in the paper. Now can you go come up with a way to ensure that juries are operating properly in the absence of even the possibility that there might be a scintilla of accountability?

 

Florida Guv Signs Mindless Exemption Into Law…

From the Reporters Committee:

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Thursday that exempts any photographs, video or audio recordings that depict or record the “killing of a person” from the mandatory disclosure requirements under the state’s public records laws.

The bill, which Florida media organizations have fought against, would allow access to such recordings by certain immediate family members, local government entities, and state and federal agencies. Members of the public could get access to these recordings only upon a showing that “good cause,” as defined in the exemption, exists for disclosure.

It takes about 15 seconds to think of a reason why this is a terrible exemption. Think, for example, of a 14-year-old boy dying under a cloud of controversy at a Florida juvenile boot camp. Think the news media might be able to shed some light on a situation like that? Well, they did…and now they won’t.

The Bad Exemption Factory Just Keeps on Pumping ‘Em Out

And in news of the truly inane…has anyone considered what happens when the death involves, say, a controversial police shooting???

A bill seeking to exempt depictions of deaths from Florida’s public records laws is making its way through the legislature, and freedom-of-information advocates are warning that the repercussions of such a broad measure could be detrimental to the public’s ability to hold law enforcement and government agents accountable.

“It would be harder for the public to know about these kinds of issues, and much harder, if not impossible for any oversight of law enforcement,” says Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit based in Tallahassee. “And not just law enforcement, quite frankly, because this is any video, or any recording of either the killing of a person or the events leading up to the killing of a person. So for example, in the Tampa Bay area a couple years ago we had the Carlie Brucia case where the security tapes that were critical in that case would have been exempt from public disclosure under this bill.” #

Eleven-year-old Carlie Brucia was abducted and murdered in 2004, and the security tapes from a car wash near her home captured a man leading the young girl to his car shortly before she was reported missing.  With the help of technology provided by NASA to enhance the images, the FBI was eventually able to locate Brucia’s killer and bring him to justice.

State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, says her bill stems from the police dashboard video recording of the murder of two Tampa police officers, and was written to protect victims’ family members.

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A Tough Exemption to Battle In Florida…

This is a toughie, and it’s where FOI stalwarts really have their work cut out for them in making the case for openness:

Lawmakers are considering exempting photos, audio recordings and videos “that depict or record the killing of a person” from public records laws. The bill was spurred by last summer’s brutal murders of Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis.

A dashboard camera in a police cruiser captured the officers trying to arrest a passenger from a car that was pulled over in a routine traffic stop. On the video, in a split second, the man pulls a gun, shoots both the officers and bolts. The scene is clear and terrible and no doubt the strongest evidence for prosecutors seeking the death penalty for Dontae Morris.

This St. Pete Times editorial takes the best approach:

The bill under consideration would let a judge provide such viewings only if certain guidelines are met. It could also undercut a critical element of our justice system: public trust.

Consider the case of a police officer who shoots and kills someone, and how crucial it is for the citizens to know what happened and why. What’s good about a law that automatically keeps any video, photo or audio evidence secret?

Or consider the infamous video of the 14-year-old boy in the boot camp yard surrounded by drill instructors striking his arms and kneeing him in the back before his death — images that prompted the elimination of boot camps in Florida.

One more thing about the video of Martin Lee Anderson that day: It was also front and center for a jury that ultimately decided no crime was committed.

What happened in Tampa to two police officers was beyond tragic, and you can understand wanting to protect the grieving. But a better legacy is one that takes care to protect them while letting the public see the truth about what happened.

 

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