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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 4 years ago

Winter Park leaders reject Sunshine Law accusations

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The First Amendment Foundation claims the city’s one-on-one meetings between commissioners violate the “spirit” of the Government in the Sunshine Act.
by: Tim Freed Managing Editor

When it comes to public one-on-one meetings between city commissioners, has Winter Park really done anything wrong?

The Winter Park City Commission has come under fire from the First Amendment Foundation — an entity that claims Winter Park has violated the “spirit” of the Government in the Sunshine Act with its one-on-one meetings between commissioners.

Foundation President Barbara Petersen sent a letter to the city Thursday, Nov. 30, regarding recent one-on-one public meetings, stating that such meetings are “bad public policy” and “legally questionable.”

“The purpose of our open government laws is to provide the public an opportunity to oversee its government and hold it accountable for its actions,” the letter reads. “The practice of holding one-on-one meetings, particularly during the workday, creates an unnecessary and unwarranted barrier to the public’s ability to attend such meetings. Citizens should be encouraged to participate in their government and these one-on-one meetings act as a disincentive and deterrent to civic engagement.”

However, legally, Winter Park is allowed to conduct public one-on-one meetings to discuss city issues, under Florida Statute Chapter 286. Every such meeting has been open to the public and publicly noticed, with audio recorded during the meeting and an agenda provided beforehand.

“(The one-on-one meetings) allow the public and commissioners to get into a little bit of a deeper dive on specific issues here,” Leary said. “We meet all the requirements. … Mr. Seidel shared some really important information with me, and I think he found out that he and I are not as far apart as he thought going into it. Fifteen people got to hear that, and I don’t see what’s wrong with that. It’s actually being recorded and the audio is available for people to listen to. Tell me exactly how we’re shutting people out?”

First Amendment Foundation Board of Trustees member and retired Orlando Sentinel Editor Bob Shaw penned a column condemning the meetings. Shaw wrote that the meetings between Seidel and Commissioner Peter Weldon on Nov. 14 and between Seidel and Leary on Nov. 29 were held at 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. Furthermore, Shaw said the agendas for the meetings didn’t include enough details. 

“If you work during the day, it’s going to be very difficult to get to that meeting unless you take some time off,” Shaw said. “You’re not likely going to want to make the effort to take time off unless you know that they’re going to be discussing something that you care about.... With a generalized agenda like that, that gives (commissioners) the ability to talk about anything, but it leaves the public with no idea what they’re going to talk about.”

Seidel said meetings are held by governmental boards throughout Orange County at similar times and that foundation is accusing the commission of bad intentions when there were none, he said.

“I have a real job that I work 50 to 60 hours a week,” he said. “We schedule a time that’s convenient for us to get together and meets the Sunshine Laws and we have our conversations. Why is that not an efficient thing for us to be doing? 

“If you look up my company, our company’s trademark is ‘The knowledge you need. The integrity you trust,’” he said. “When I have a random guy call out my integrity, of course that bothers me. … These meeting are supposed to be recorded and there’s nothing secret about them. He’s insinuating that we’re trying to do some things in secret, when the reality is we’re not.”

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Tim Freed is the Managing Editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and the Windermere Observer. He previously spent six years covering the Winter Park/Maitland area and is a graduate of the University of Central Florida....

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