Government in the Sunshine?

 

When a public records request for Student Government (SG) election grievances filed last week was deemed invalid due to an SG Statute that states requests for records must be filed on a particular form in the SG office, questions arose as to whether SG is required to follow all of Florida State Statutes. 

While members of Student Government hold that the USF General Counsel’s legal opinion is that is not defined as a “public agency” as stipulated by Sunshine State laws, the informal name of the sections of Florida State Statutes that deal with public record and open government meeting laws, some legal experts differ. 

When The Oracle filed a public records request via email and phone calls last week via phone and email, Director of SG Advising, Training and Operations Gary Manka said one grievance had been filed, but had to be certified by the Election Rules Committee (ERC) before it could be released as a public record. Follow-up calls to Manka and ERC Supervisor Sayf Hassouneh last Thursday and Friday revealed the meeting of the ERC had yet to take place, and on Monday, which marked the first day of voting, Manka said the ERC met and information on grievances would come “soon.”

On Tuesday, The Oracle filed an SG-created public record request form during an in-person visit to the SG office, a method of requesting that Manka said at the time was “preferred.” 

Manka said he did not have the records in his possession, but Hassouneh did. Hassouneh said the documents could take up to five days to release from the time the SG-produced form was filed, per SG statutes. 

Florida Statutes Chapter 119, however, allows that requests for public records or documents from a public agency can be made, and must be entertained, in any form, including verbally.

Yet the question as to whether Student Government could institute their own policies that contradict Sunshine State laws, which according to the Office of the Attorney General’s website, date back to 1909 to protect the “public’s right of access to governmental meetings and records,” may be irrelevant as Associate General Counsel Joanne Adamchak said in an email Tuesday to Manka, SG is not defined as an agency by Chapter 119, but instead “has voluntarily agreed to make its records public and hold open meetings while respecting the privacy statutes regarding students.” 

“Although Chapter 119 prohibits agencies from having proscribed ways of requesting public records, as SG is not an agency by definition under the statute and SG records may be interpreted to directly relate to students, SG may establish protocols to enable SG to track the requests for SG records by requiring the requests to be in writing, maintaining the requests, recording the date of the requests and to whom the records are released,” Adamchak wrote in the email. 

But Section 2 of Chapter 119.011 of Florida State Statutes extends the definition of an “agency” to “any other public or private agency, person, partnership, corporation, or business entity acting on behalf of any public agency,” as well. 

Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, an organization that specializes in Florida’s Open Government laws, said because the university is considered a public agency, Student Government, as a part of the university, could not create its own policies that supersede state laws. 

“It’s a violation of law,” she said. “They cannot supersede the state law, unless they are an entity that has statutory authority. … Student Government is part of the university. The university is subject to public records law. Student government does not have statutory authority.”

But public record requests are not the only place Student Government Sunshine laws, outlined in Chapter 204 of the Student Government statutes, differ from state laws. 

Government meetings are considered open meetings, under Florida State laws, and SG meetings, under SG statutes, are defined as “any formal meeting of two or more officers or representatives of the collegial body to discuss some matter on which future action will be taken,” and must be open to the public, must have reasonable notice provided and minutes must be taken and archived. 

But the SG statutes additionally state, that no entity outside members of Student Government can record these public meetings, which range from election grievance hearings to Student Government Senate meetings, where the voting on bills, procedures and the allocation of the more than $14 million in student-paid Activity and Service fees takes place. 

According to the Florida Office of the Attorney General’s website, citizens cannot be prohibited from recording through the use of “nondisruptive recording devices.”

Manka said the rule to ban all recording at Student Government meetings – portions of which have been broadcast on local TV news stations in recent years – came about a few years ago after a group of individuals tried to videotape a Student Government Senate meeting, something that posed a disruption for the meetings. Manka said General Counsel advised SG at the time to prohibit all recording. 

Manka also said Student Government doesn’t define itself as a non-agency, but simply defers to General Counsel’s interpretation. In his opinion, he said, most entities that are state-related are subject to public records law, but based on General Counsel’s interpretation of it, Student Government’s compliance with it is voluntary, though he said they have always provided records. 

“I don’t want to make that call,” he said.

Hassouneh said SG “definitely does not supersede the state,” but said SG bases its rules on General Counsel’s interpretation. 

“I’m just a microbiology student,” he said. “We follow the advice of Legal Counsel.” 

In her email to Manka, Adamchak said the discussion over the definition of SG as a public agency may be ongoing.

“This may be an ongoing discussion and the Florida AG has declined to clarify if SGs could be considered agencies under 119,” she wrote. “When and if the Attorney General or other court provides any additional guidance in this regard, SG will be required to comply with those current directives. I am out of the office this week on leave, however on my return I will try and compile the most current case law and the AG responses with regard to this issue and provide them to you.”

Pat Gleason, Special Counsel for Open Government for the Office of the Attorney General, said the office does not provide legal opinions via phone, but said she was not aware of any previous cases regarding Student Governments and Sunshine State law. 

USF Media and Public Affairs Coordinator Adam Freeman said Adamchak was out of office on annual leave this week and thus was unavailable for comment, but said USF follows Sunshine State laws and Student Government has historically provided public records voluntarily.

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