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Statute interpretation needs another look

January 24, 2009
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

The promises are plentiful. Two hundred new jobs in the next few years, jobs that will average $60,000 per year. A local Fortune 500 expansion right here in Lee County. An $11.5 million capital investment for a community starved for construction work.

The catch - if there is one?

The Lee County Commission was asked to approve a $350,000 grant without knowing the name of the company or how the firm intends to spend that money along with additional economic development funds from the state.

County staff, citing confidentiality agreements and statutes that exempt such information from public disclosure, told the elected officials they could not share financial information with them, even one-on-one.

Commissioner Frank Mann said this was nonsense, commissioners are absolutely entitled to know how the money will be spent before committing to its appropriation.

Confidentiality agreements are intended to benefit the public by making sure state and local governments can compete freely for economic development projects still in the negotiation stages, Commissioner Mann maintains. The legislation, he said, was never intended to hinder access to information by elected officials asked to write the check. What's more, in some small counties in Florida, economic development officials are the elected officials so any such exemption would create conflict.

Fact Box

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While he came out on the tail end of a 3-2 vote, Commissioner Brian Bigelow joining him in the dissent, Commissioner Mann is not alone in his interpretation of the confidentiality statutes.

Public records attorneys at the state level this week told us they know of no express provision that would preclude staff from answering commission questions one-on-one. The confidentiality assured in the statutes would, of course, then apply to the elected official receiving the information and any penalties for disclosure - which include the possibility of criminal charges - would apply.

While we understand the intent of statutes that provide for confidentiality for businesses looking to relocate, we believe that Commissioner Mann is correct on this one: Commissioners are entitled know how public money will be spent before it is committed. He is correct that Gov. Charlie Crist probably will ask similar questions before the state allocates any expenditure of funds in these lean economic times. We're sure his staff will tell him.

We suggest Commissioner Mann seek an Attorney General's opinion on this one. With lots left remaining in the county's $25 million economic development incentives pot, this is not the last time this question will arise.

Hopefully, though, it will be the last time the county commission writes a blank check, based on promises and staff assurances. That's just good business.

- Breeze editorial



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