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Exactly Where Should the Sunshine Stop?

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is asking the state attorney general to weigh in on whether a regional economic development organization is subject to the state's open records and meeting laws.

Gaetz sent Attorney General Bill McCollum a letter Tuesday that asked McCollum's legal opinion on Florida's Great Northwest, an economic development group that was established to push workforce development in 16 northwest Florida counties.

The organization was not created by law or a public agency. It leases private office space and part of its budget comes from member organizations. It operates independently of any public or governmental entity.

But the private, non-profit corporation also receives federal and state money. According to the document Gaetz sent to McCollum, the group receives federal money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Labor, in addition to grant money from Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development operation.

The Board of Directors also includes several public officials from northwest Florida community colleges and other public entities.

The Northwest Florida Daily News and Panama City News-Herald have both made an issue out of the group's closed meeting and record practices, which Gaetz said spurred him to get involved. He said he isn't really taking sides, but wants clarity on the issue.

“Florida's Great Northwest does an immense amount of great work,” Gaetz said. “Imagine the difficulties that occur if it was found after the fact that this organization was subject to the Sunshine Law, and consequently, actions that they might have taken might have been improper or illegal. Imagine if they were working on some deal that would benefit our area - bring jobs to our area – then, after the fact, it was alleged that they violated the Sunshine Law when they didn't know the Sunshine Law applied to them.”

Al Wenstrand, President of Florida’s Great Northwest, Inc., had also asked that state Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, who is a member of the group’s board of directors, make a similar request of McCollum.

In a press release, he said the group would comply with whatever finding McCollum's office makes, but maintains that he believes the group is exempt from the open meeting and open records law.

“The corporation was not created by statute, nor does it act on behalf of any state agency or is it controlled by any state agency,” he said in the November release. “Furthermore, Florida’s Great Northwest does not utilize staff or other business resources of a state agency and the organization does not make decisions on behalf of any state agency.”

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