Doig Defends Florida’s Public

by Drew R. Hamilton

Matthew Doig, investigative reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, spoke to the Public Affairs Reporting class on Tuesday, Jan. 25.

Doig discussed three of his most-noteworthy stories, which included the following topics: mortgage fraud, abusive teachers and lower standards for teachers in low-income regions of the state.

In each case, Doig was able to use public records to unveil a frightening occurrence in our society on a state level.  From his lecture, it became clear that the journalist’s story lies in those areas of the public records where there is a procedural and/or operational breakdown.

In the abusive teachers story, where Doig uncovered that an astounding amount of Florida teachers were getting second and third chances after multiple complaints of sexual misconduct with students, the procedural breakdown occurred on the school district level.  Doig discovered that many school districts were not reporting the teacher misconduct complaints to the state level officials, as they are required.   This allowed teachers to skip around school districts earning a complaint or two, before jumping ship to prey on another district.

In the mortgage fraud case, the procedural breakdown was less negligible than the teacher abuse case, because there were criminals cooking up fake documents in order to scam the bank out of large sums of money.

However, if the bank had done their homework, like Doig and Co. at the Herald-Tribune, they would have discovered that they were being had.

The story exposing the hard truth that low-income regions of the state often harbor the teachers, who have repeatedly failed the competency test, appeared to be the easiest of the three to uncover and probably the most basic approach to using public records in journalism.

For this story, all the information was out in the open.  All Doig had to do was go get it.  He explained how that was easier said than done.  Doig’s team at the Herald-Tribune experienced a lot of resistance from the state school board.  Once they had the data, they were able to prove what they had thought all along, that the Florida’s worst teachers ended up teaching at the schools with the lowest income.

Yet again, there was an operational breakdown in the school board’s lack of oversight and review of these terrible teachers.  Doig discovered that teachers were allowed to take the competency test as many times as they needed to pass.  One teacher took it a whopping 62 times.

Matthew Doig and his fellow investigative journalists at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune have accomplished real social change from their work with public records.

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Clouds in the Sunshine

by Drew R. Hamilton

The Sunshine Laws, as they are commonly referred, were enacted beginning in the 1950s on the state level.  An inquisitive public demanded that government meetings be transparent, in order to sustain a sound democratic foundation.   Open-meeting regulations had reached the federal level during the 1970s and today each of the 50 states, the federal government and the District of Columbia all have some form of Sunshine Law.

Open-meeting regulations differ from state to state and on the federal level.  But, what distinguishes a state’s Sunshine Law from another state’s open-meeting regulations are the exemptions in that state.  Exemptions are the provisions that the local legislature or governing agency has decided to conceal with the public’s best interest in mind.

Tim Nickens, the Editorials Editor for the Saint Petersburg Times, dissected the Sunshine Law into two parts: meetings of public officials [s. 286.011, F.S.] and public records [s. 119.011(1), F.S.].  Nickens went on to explain that there is far more information found within public records than in government meetings open to the public, “[Chapter 119] is one of the most effective statutes the public has and journalists have for accountability and to hold your local government responsible, because a lot of times, unfortunately, folks aren’t going to tell you the truth, but there is, generally, a paper trail some where and the paper trail is often more revealing than what these men and women are going to tell you, in sound bites, on TV.”

Nickens explained what the climate for journalists was like prior to the enactment of the Sunshine Laws: “…in the late 80s, I would spend a lot of time in front of locked doors and hallways waiting for people to come out and tell me what had happened.  Now of course they took votes in public but by then it was all done.  That wasn’t where the real decision making was going on.”

Generally speaking, the exemptions of a state’s open-meeting regulations are the determining factor of the strength of the law.  Therefore, an examination of the exemptions will determine the extent of transparency displayed by the governing bodies of each state.

Nickens points out a discrepancy between state legislative members and local government that allows members of the Florida Legislature to circumvent the open-meetings regulations, “…there are no real requirements for notice, necessarily, like there are for public meetings at the local government level…you still basically have to go find [state level officials].”

In Florida, there are many exemptions that allow a meeting to be closed.  However, according to the website of the Office of the Attorney General of the state of Florida, “the Sunshine Law should be liberally construed to give effect to its public purpose while exemptions should be narrowly construed.”  This means that the open-meetings regulations should cast a broad net, while the exemptions should be specifically stated instances, in which, it serves the public’s best interest to withhold the content of the meeting from the public.

The Florida State Legislature defines the term “exemption” to include a provision of general law, which allows that a specific meeting, or a portion of that meeting, be protected from the public access requirements.  There were two landmark court cases that helped define the line of “specificity” and how it would be applied: the Halifax Hosiptal Medical Center v. News-Journal Corporation (FL 1999) and the Baker County Press, Inc. v. Baker County Medical Services, Inc.  It had been determined by the Florida State Supreme Court that the Halifax case did not meet the constitutional standard of specificity.  Yet, the same court concluded that the Baker case had reached the constitutional standard, not met in the Halifax case, and awarded the exemption.

The office of the Attorney General (click here for link) vigorously reviews the application of exemptions, knowing that government officials will attempt to circumvent the open-meetings regulations by manipulating the possible nature of topics discussed in a meeting that they would prefer be closed.  The Attorney General’s office states, “If the board or agency feels aggrieved, then the remedy lies in the halls of the Legislature and not in efforts to circumvent the plain provisions of the statute by devious ways in the hope that the judiciary will read some exception into the law.”  Nickens confirmed that the members of the state legislature can ultimately tell the press that vote-pending legislation was not being discussed.

In Florida, an exemption has a five-year lifespan.  At the conclusion of five years, the exemption must be reenacted by the state legislature for it to continue.  A two-thirds vote is required to enact or reenact an exemption.

Some of the more common exemptions in Florida are abuse meetings and hearings dealing with minors.  The Florida State Child Abuse Death Review Committee (click here for link), whose mission is to “conduct detailed reviews of the facts and circumstances surrounding child abuse and neglect deaths in which a verified report of abuse or neglect was accepted by the Florida Abuse Hotline within the Department of Children and Family Services,” are exempt from the open-meetings regulations.  However, the closed portion of the meeting must be recorded.  The recording is protected from disclosure.

Meetings of domestic violence fatality review teams are closed to the public, during times in which the names of victims of abuse or individuals providing information about a case of domestic abuse are discussed.

Many of the exemptions have to deal with concealing the identity of minors or victims of sexual abuse crimes.

Exemptions such as the ability of a judge to clear a courtroom, except the listed participants, during the testimony of a victim of a sex crime, at the victim’s request, serve a very meaningful purpose in protecting victim’s rights.

However, there are exemptions that have raised controversy.  In 2001, the Florida Legislature passed the Earnhardt Family Protection Act, which required an expressed permission release from the victim’s next of kin.  Nickens explained how the state government has overreacted in this bill, by accommodating the requests of the Earnhardt family to seal autopsy photos.

A complete list of Florida’s Sunshine Law exemptions can be found here (click here for link).

Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 6:53 am  Comments (20)