A group of media organizations weighed in on a public records court battle this week.

A group of media organizations weighed in on a public records court battle this week.

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Fourteen media groups—including the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting—have filed an amicus brief backing Brevard County Clerk of Courts Scott Ellis in a case regarding whether a local public/private economic development agency’s documents are subject to the state’s public records laws.

First Amendment advocates argue the case, Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast v. Scott Ellis, has implications that would affect the entire state.

According to the filed brief, the media groups involved are: the First Amendment Foundation Inc., The Associated Press, The Florida Press Association, Florida Society of News Editors, The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, Miami Herald Media Company, Orlando Sentinel Communications LLC, Scripps Media Inc., Sun-Sentinel Company LLC, Tampa Media Group, Halifax Media Group LLC, The Bradenton Herald Inc., and Morris Communications Corporation.

Florida Today – a Space Coast area newspaper—reported:

“This is a very important case,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, who is helping organize the effort. “It’s got statewide implications.”

In March, Circuit Court Judge John Moxley Jr. sided with Ellis in a case involving Economic Development Commission documents, ruling that, because of the EDC’s role as Brevard County’s economic-development agency, “any records generated in carrying out those duties are public records subject to inspection.” The EDC is appealing the ruling to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach.

…The Brevard County Commission voted to support the EDC in its legal challenge to Moxley’s ruling that opens up most EDC records to public scrutiny.

Commissioners voted 4-1 to authorize County Attorney Scott Knox to file a “friend of the court” brief supporting the EDC. Commissioner Trudie Infantini opposed the move.

The majority of the county commissioners felt that Moxley’s ruling could damage the EDC’s efforts to attract companies and jobs to the region, because companies would fear that confidentiality would be compromised if they dealt with the EDC.

Ellis said Moxley’s ruling would not have the consequences that the EDC and its supporters fear. Ellis said confidential information would remain confidential under existing state law.

Florida Today reported earlier this year that the case dates back to January 2013 when Ellis “demanded that the EDC provide records to his office related to its dealings with technology company BlueWare Inc. and its subsidiaries.”

Officials at the EDC refused to turn over the documents and now the issue is in court.

According to Florida Today, “Ellis said he believes the EDC is acting out of a concern to shield its financial data, more than anything else.”

“The EDC is not seeking to shield company information,” Ellis said. “Florida Statutes 288.075 already shield the company information for the first year and up to two years. The only reason for the EDC to appeal now is they seek to shield their expenditures from public view. This has nothing to do with clients or future clients.”

Media groups argued in the brief the functions of the EDC is of the public interest and therefore should be subject to Florida’s broad sunshine laws.

According to the brief, the coalition of media groups argue:

The protection of access to public records serves fundamental constitutional values.  Amici regularly investigate and report to the public on government activity. To fully realize their constitutionally protected watchdog role, Amici frequently rely on open records laws across the country to observe and scrutinize the conduct of public officials and activities. To that end, they have an ongoing stake in ensuring such laws remain robust and are not abused by government entities seeking to hide their actions from public review and scrutiny.

It is respectfully submitted that the proposed analysis by Amici of the important questions raised by this appeal may assist this Court in resolving the issues presented. Amici believe that the Court would benefit from an amicus curiae brief that addresses the competing interests between the right of citizens to governmental transparency and governmental agencies that delegate economic development functions to another body.

Florida Today reports “the media groups are represented by attorney Andrea Flynn Mogenson of Sarasota.”

The EDC’s initial brief is due mid-September to the circuit court.