Closed Rooney Roundtable proceeds despite protests from public and press

439 days (1 year, 2 months, 15 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum

May 7, 2019 by David Silverberg

Updated with WGCU/Twitter reporting, May 8, 2019

Despite anguished protests from Floridians affected by impure or polluted water and outraged demands for public and press access, federal, state and local officials held a secret, closed meeting today at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute to discuss harmful algal blooms.

The roundtable was attended by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) as well as a variety of officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. State officials from a variety of agencies attended as well as officials at the county and municipal levels.

Although DeSantis and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) held a press conference after the very brief meeting, the public was kept at a sufficient distance from the lectern and speakers so that they couldn’t be heard. No transcript is expected.

A second, public, streamed event on the topic of harmful algal blooms is scheduled to be held Friday, which will be more of a public airing and include local activist organizations.  However, the press and public will likely never know what decisions were reached at the closed roundtable held today.

Some live clips from the meeting courtesy of WGCU via Twitter:

On the impropriety of closing the meeting: https://twitter.com/wgcu/status/1125802351992897537

On the threat to democracy from improper secrecy: https://twitter.com/wgcu/status/1126156718780637184

05-07-19 Panorama of FGCU-ETI, site of Rooney RoundtableA panoramic view of the site where the Rooney Roundtable was held. The orange cones mark the closest distance that the public was allowed to get to the building.    (All photos by the author.)
05-07-19 Protesters at Rooney roundtableA small but vigorous group of people tried to make their concerns about Southwest Florida water quality heard but were ignored by the officials at the Roundtable. A number were protesting the mining activities of the Mosaic Co., which they say is polluting waters in central Florida.
05-07-19 Protester with taped mouth at Rooney roundtableA protester demands clean water and the chance to speak to government officials and lawmakers.
05-07-19 Darlene Lucas and Jan Fennessy, protesters at Rooney RoundtableDarlene Lucas, a retired nurse, and Jan Fennessy drove to Fort Myers from Venice to try to learn about the health effects of algal blooms. Lucas said she had seen severe impacts from impure water in her practice.
05-07-19 Eric Larson, student at FGCU-ETIEric Larson, a student at the Emergent Technologies Institute. Larson had hoped to show Gov. DeSantis the facility and some of his work but wasn’t permitted in the building and was kept outside on the lawn with other members of the public.
05-07-19 DeSantis press conferenceThe closest the public was allowed to get to the outdoor press conference by DeSantis and Rooney.

The secrecy of the Rooney Roundtable was a violation of the spirit and intent of Florida’s Sunshine Law, which holds that decisions affecting the public should be made in public, WINK-TV lawyer Karen Kammer stated in a May 3 letter to Rooney.

Commentary

Rooney and DeSantis’ ability to exclude the press and public from a forum making decisions critical to Floridians’ health and wellbeing sets a dangerous precedent and is a blow to the rule of law in a state with one of the most comprehensive government transparency laws in the nation.

The secret decisions taken at this meeting will now likely trickle down to the county and municipal levels but in what forms and to what ends the press and public may never know.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

Activists show up early at Rooney Roundtable

05-07-19 Tim Ritchie and activists at FGCU ETI

Tim Ritchie (left) and fellow activists Samuel Tarpening and Frank Coz, show up early at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute to press their case for clean water after a drive from Punta Gorda. Ritchie is founder and organizer of March Against Mosaic, which seeks to ban phosphate mining in Florida. The trio was on hand for the opening of a “private” roundtable organized by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) to show their concern to officials discussing harmful algal blooms. Rooney closed the meeting to press and public in possible violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law. Nonetheless, public activists will seek to make their voices heard throughout the day.   (Photo: David Silverberg)

WINK-TV lawyer to Rooney: Closed roundtable violates Sunshine Law

04-30-19 Emergent Technologies Institute

Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute where a closed discussion on harmful algae blooms is scheduled to take place on May 7.  (Photo: FGCU)

437 days (1 year, 2 months, 13 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum

May 5, 2019 by David Silverberg

The Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) roundtable scheduled for Tuesday, May 7, will violate Florida’s Sunshine Law if it is closed to the press and public, argues an attorney for WINK-TV, based in Fort Myers, Fla.

“However well-intentioned the notion of closing the HAB Meeting to the press and public may have been, such closure in our view violates Florida’s Sunshine Law,” writes Karen Kammer, a lawyer with the firm Mitrani, Raynor, Adamsky and Toland, Miami, Fla., and counsel to WINK-TV.

Kammer delivered the opinion in a strongly-worded May 3 letter to Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), who organized the meeting (referred to here as the Rooney Roundtable). After publicly announcing the meeting of federal, state and local officials in April, Rooney subsequently declared that the meeting was “private” and press and public would be excluded.

“Respectfully, on behalf of my clients and the public we must object strenuously to closure as a violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law, Section 286.011, Florida Statutes,” argued Kammer.

Kammer noted that the Sunshine Law only allows very narrow exceptions to opening meetings to the public and these exceptions must be made by the legislature, not individuals.

Kammer cited five objections to Rooney’s closure of his roundtable:

  1. He has no legal standing to close a meeting of state and local officials;
  2. The reasons he cited for closure (privacy, personal relationships and unrestricted discussion) don’t exist in Florida law;
  3. Action and decisions based on the roundtable may be taken by public boards and commissions and so it must be open to press and public;
  4. It appears that invitees were chosen specifically to evade the Sunshine Law’s requirements;
  5. Any concerns that Rooney might have about decorum or order during the course of the meeting is not a basis for closure.

“The devastating effect of the algal blooms on the health and welfare of Florida’s citizens, as well as on the state’s economy, is worthy of continued discussion to devise efforts to combat it. Nonetheless, such efforts must be conducted in the sunshine as Florida law requires,” wrote Kammer. “Accordingly, we urge each of you to honor our objections and insist the Meeting be made open to the press and public in the manner described above.”

There is no response to the letter or any other comment on the Roundtable on Rep. Rooney’s website. A query has been sent to Rooney’s office.

This report will be updated as circumstances warrant.

Liberty lives in light
© 2019 by David Silverberg

“You’re not invited”—How the Rooney Roundtable went from success to mess, an analysis

04-30-19 Emergent Technologies Institute

Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute where a closed discussion on harmful algae blooms is scheduled to take place on May 7.  (Photo: FGCU)

436 days (1 year, 2 months, 12 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum

May 4, 2019 by David Silverberg

It takes special effort to transform an impending success to an ongoing mess.

At the end of April, by all conventional measures, the roundtable discussion of harmful algal blooms organized by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) was looking to be a great success.

He had pulled together all the key players, federal, state and local, who could actually do something about Southwest Florida’s water crisis. They were going to meet each other in the flesh and have a substantive discussion and perhaps reach some decisions. He had commitments that they would show up—no small feat! He had arranged a time and a venue in Southwest Florida. He was burnishing his credentials as a green Republican who cared about his local environment and getting kudos for it. He had the local media playing it up, simply accepting his press release.

But when that media started scheduling their actual coverage of the event, they discovered something startling: they weren’t invited. Neither was the public. For all the promotion, all the preliminary publicity they’d given this event, they were excluded.

Not only that but all the participants were public officials on the public payroll and they were going to conduct public business on vital matters. In a state with perhaps the most sweeping sunshine law in the country, Rooney had simply decided to lock the doors and keep the press and public out—and it seemed that his attendees, all public servants and many in publicly elected offices, were in on the game.

Now coverage of what we’ll call the Rooney Roundtable is a matter of intense public interest and an important point of contention—because if Rooney gets away with closing this matter of vital public importance, it means that the Florida Sunshine Law is a sham and doors will start slamming on the press and public in Southwest Florida and throughout the state in the future. When matters of vital public importance are discussed, no longer will the public know what’s being decided or done in their name or to them. The media, their eyes and ears, will be unconstitutionally blinded and muted.

This comes at a time of heightened awareness of government secretiveness at the national level over topics like the Robert Mueller report, the president’s tax returns and Russian election meddling. Rooney’s promise to hold a press conference after his roundtable smacks suspiciously of what will likely be a local replay of Attorney General William Barr’s deceptive summaries of Mueller’s findings. Rooney may summarize what was said at the roundtable but the public, who pays every attendee’s salary, will not know who said what or which agency each speaker represented. Overall, Rooney is appearing to be cut from the same secretive cloth as his hero and mentor, Donald Trump.

From a political perspective, Rooney’s insistence on secrecy has turned his roundtable from a triumph to a debacle. He now seems to be doing something illicit to the public rather than on their behalf. He has turned what was previously a largely supportive, supine and somnolent local media establishment against himself and the bitterness from this is likely to linger. Whether it will still be remembered next November is questionable. But if Rooney faces a primary challenge, which is likely, it will add fuel to his adversary’s fire.

Rookie mistakes

The most revealing thing about Rooney’s thinking was a statement he made that was quoted by NBC-2’s Dave Elias: “to obtain the participants we have, the forum must be private and technically oriented.”

The statement reveals that Rooney has still not made the mental transition from private businessman to public servant, nor does he understand the nature of public business.

In inviting public officials to his roundtable, Rooney assured some potential attendees—probably all—that their comments would be off the record and shielded from public scrutiny.

First, he did not have the power or authority to do that. There are no “private” government meetings. They’re either open or closed, public or classified. In private life and business he could do whatever he wanted. But every listed participant in Rooney’s Roundtable is a public official doing the public’s business on the public payroll dealing with a matter of vital public interest. As a congressman and public servant, Rooney had no authority to move this off the record and out of public sight. If he was going to do it behind closed doors he needed to declare it a classified meeting and meet all the standards and requirements for classification, which would mean that all participants would be sworn to secrecy and revealing the roundtable’s contents would become a federal crime.

Secondly, Rooney has argued that the roundtable does not violate Florida’s Sunshine Law because no two participating officials are from the same agency. It’s a nice bit of Jesuitical hair-splitting but the intent of the Sunshine Law is to open proceedings affecting the public to public scrutiny and this meeting more than meets the standard. Further, if Rooney is wrong, his attendees from Florida jurisdictions could be guilty of a crime and face a fine. If they’re elected officials they will be giving potential opponents ammunition in their next elections.

As for the contents of the roundtable being too technical for the press and public to understand, that’s just plain arrogance. Every Southwest Floridian has been living with the consequences of harmful algal blooms for over a year. There’s excellent, deep and widespread understanding of the issue, the forces surrounding it and the government mechanisms for dealing with it. If Rooney is saying the press and public are too stupid to understand this topic then he’s also saying they’re too stupid to understand any public issue and ultimately, that they’re too stupid to vote. This is an argument that has no merit whatsoever.

Rooney is accustomed to being the head of a major corporation, to holding board and operational meetings where his word is law and his decisions are final. Like another inexperienced businessman thrust into a high-profile public role, he’s unaccustomed to constitutional and legal restraints on his actions and to meeting public requirements. He’s accustomed to being a ruler, not a servant so he finds the role of serving the public uncomfortable and unfamiliar.

With his roundtable, Rooney is trying to have it both ways. He wants publicity and public credit for organizing it but doesn’t want it to be publicly open and he wants a crisp, decisive meeting that reaches firm decisions without the kind of public sunshine required by law.

What is more, he’s not terribly reflective. As he said in his remarks at The Alamo gun range and store in May 2018, “we need a nation of do-ers, not philosophers.” Well, he didn’t philosophize much or think this through and what he’s doing is putting his foot into a quagmire very, very deeply.

The options

So what can Rooney do now? Options include:

  • The right and best option: Declare the meeting open. Tell his attendees that he made a mistake and that press and public will be in attendance and the meeting is on the record. Those who can’t handle it will simply drop out. Then release an official text of the proceedings.
  • Cancel the whole thing permanently.
  • Cancel this session but regroup and try to do the same thing again, only the right way, perhaps under the auspices of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) or the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, with those institutions setting the groundrules and guidelines and handling invitations. Another alternative is to hold a formal field hearing or a hearing in Washington, DC, following the rules of the House of Representatives. And, of course, keeping everything open to the press and public.
  • Plow ahead as planned and just hold the roundtable as a “private” gathering excluding the press and public. But remember—this is like plowing a field sowed with landmines. You never know which one is going to blow up. Rooney may get his roundtable as originally conceived but he jeopardizes the wellbeing of his participants, whether civil service or elected. Moreover, this course may work to Rooney’s own detriment in unforeseeable ways.

The aim of the Rooney Roundtable is commendable but the process of putting it together as currently planned was ignorant and inept from both procedural and political standpoints. Its execution may actually be illegal.

So far as this author knows the roundtable is still scheduled for Tuesday, May 7 at the Emergent Technologies Institute of FGCU, 16301 Innovation Lane, in Fort Myers, Fla., which is just off Alico Road, east of Route 75. It’s a good guess that invitees will start showing up between 8:00 am and 9:00 am. Whether anyone else gets in will be up to Francis Rooney.

The press and public should be there. Let’s see if there’s still sunshine in the Sunshine State.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

 

 

Pressure ramps up on Rooney to open government roundtable to press and public

04-30-19 Emergent Technologies InstituteFlorida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute where a closed discussion on harmful algae blooms is scheduled to take place on May 7.  (Photo: FGCU)

435 days (1 year, 2 months, 11 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum

May 3, 2019 by David Silverberg

Pressure ramped up this week on Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) to open a scheduled roundtable on harmful algal blooms to the press and public.

The roundtable discussion on harmful algal blooms (HABs) is scheduled to take place Tuesday, May 7 at the Emergent Technologies Institute of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) at 16301 Innovation Lane, in Fort Myers, Fla. It is closed to the press and public.

On April 30, NBC-2 News reporter Dave Elias filed a report on the meeting, in which he quoted Southwest Floridians complaining about being shut out. “There’s something that government officials don’t want us to hear, that’s what I get out of it,” said Emanuel Dimare, a Fort Myers realtor quoted by Elias.

On Wednesday, May 2, the Naples Daily News called for Rooney to open the discussion in an editorial, “Congressman Rooney should let public in on toxic algae discussion at FGCU,” written by Brent Batten for both that newspaper and the Fort Myers News-Press.

On Thursday, May 3, in an investigative report, “Officials schedule private meeting for SWFL water crisis,” WINK-TV reporter Lauren Sweeney attempted to contact all the announced attendees.

“Federal, state and local legislators are coming together in Southwest Florida to fight the water crisis, but you’re not invited,” Sweeney reported. She reported that WINK is considering legal action to open the meeting. (Sweeney’s report also contains a complete list of scheduled attendees.)

Also on Thursday the Naples Press Club, a non-profit, non-partisan organization of active and retired journalists and communications professionals, passed a resolution calling on Rooney to open the meeting. “…Organizers of this meeting should immediately open it to full, live coverage by the press and attendance by the public throughout its duration,” stated the resolution, adding “that no future meeting of this sort attended by public officials and of vital interest to the press and public should be closed to the press and public.”

Rooney press secretary Christopher Berardi had stated that a press conference would follow the meeting but has not yet announced a time.

Closing the meeting may violate Florida’s Sunshine Law (Florida Statute 286.011(1)), which states that any government meeting where decisions are made must be open to press and public in its entirety.

According to Sweeney of WINK-TV, in a statement Rooney maintained that since no two officials at the conference were from the same agency, the law did not apply. Elias of NBC-2 quoted a Rooney statement that declared “to obtain the participants we have, the forum must be private and technically oriented.”

The roundtable is intended to compare notes on the kinds of HABs that plagued Southwest Florida last summer. Officials will examine best practices and discuss preventive measures.

The attendees represent a cross section of federal, state and local officials.

Announced attendees include key federal officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Key state officials will come from the Florida departments of Environmental Protection, Economic Opportunity and Emergency Management. Local officials will come from Lee and Collier counties, the cities of Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Bonita Springs and the Village of Estero, as well as representatives of the Lee Health system and FGCU.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg