The Florida Sunshine and public records laws took center stage in local news recently after two sitting county commissioners and a former county commissioner were charged with criminal violations of Florida public records laws.
After Commissioner Sarah Heard was indicted in January by the Grand Jury on two criminal counts of public records violations, on top of her civil infraction in November for violating those laws, the internet went ablaze with excuses for her, Commissioner Ed Fielding's and former commissioner Anne Scott's alleged actions:
- The county had no policy on public records kept on private email accounts, so how could county commissioners be held accountable for those?
- The accused commissioners stood on their “records of achievement,” thus their “good intentions” are all that should count.
- And the court ought to “just let it go,” since “losing a handful of emails relating to a hole in the ground in western Martin County” is not a serious offense.
The facts are these:
FACT: It's true that the county's policy manual that prohibited the use of personal computers or cell phones by county staff to conduct public business did not mention the county commissioners' role in following state laws until 2017, likely because elected government officials were ALREADY required by state law to take a four-hour course EACH YEAR on Florida's ethics, public records and Sunshine laws. In addition, as far back as1996, the Florida Association of Counties has offered a “Certified County Commissioner” program that requires 36 hours of coursework, including a six-hour course in ethics, public records and Sunshine laws. Although not required by law, nearly all of Martin County's commissioners either have completed or are currently enrolled in the FAC program.
FACT: The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that no lawful excuse exists for a public official's failure to follow public records laws, including on the basis of good intentions, ignorance or even inadvertence.
FACT: The “hole in the ground” is a lawful, state-permitted business that employs dozens of residents in a depressed area of the county. Commissioners ignored public records laws to short-circuit the lawful – yet time-consuming – public permitting process, orchestrated by a non-elected person in the background. Those commissioners now face both civil and criminal charges for violating public records laws, and the person operating in the shadows was just found by a Martin County jury to be liable for $4.4 million in damages to the business. Not taking public records laws seriously is a serious mistake..