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Lawmakers Ponder Change in Open Records Law

Lawmakers remain unsure about how open records laws should apply to hybrid public-private organizations that promote economic development in the state.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, hosted representatives from business, the news industry and legal community at a round table discussion Monday to discuss whether legislation is needed to address or clarify open records laws as they relate to public-private groups such as Florida's Great Northwest, an economic development group in the Panhandle.

The Northwest Florida Daily News and Panama City News-Herald both have questioned whether Florida's Great Northwest is subject to open record and open meeting laws. The organization was not created by Florida law, it leases private office space and a portion of its budget comes from member organizations through dues.

However, the organization also receives grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Labor, and Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development operation.

Florida's Great Northwest, as well as other people in the business community, say that these type of groups are exempt from the sunshine law and that revealing some of their information would put the state or the region at an economic disadvantage. Companies being courted to move to Florida might not be so interested if their information is made public, and might go to another state.

But they also don't want it to appear they are keeping information from the public.

“That is our mission – finding a balance while not putting Florida at a competitive disadvantage,” said Dale Brill, president of the Florida Chamber Foundation .

Gaetz and Coley are in the process of determining whether there should be specific legislation to address these hybrid groups. There was no conclusion at the end of Monday's meeting, but Gaetz said he was eager to hear more from interested parties and promised to sponsor a bill if necessary.

“I think we need to be very thoughtful about this,” Gaetz said.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said the issue might be simply solved with more education. Many smaller community organizations simply don't understand the open records and meeting laws.

Brill said no matter what, it would be helpful for Florida's Great Northwest and other groups simply to have clarification. These organizations don't want their names to be associated with violating the law, he said.

“All you have to do is be involved in controversy over sunshine and you've eroded public trust,” Brill said.

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