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Public often left in the dark when politicians travel to D.C.

WASHINGTON—Miami-Dade County commissioners tout an annual trip to the nation's capital as a chance to lobby for the needs of the county, meet with decision-makers and take home sorely needed federal dollars.

But advocates for open government charge that the visits violate Florida's vaunted open-meeting law, a provision so popular that it's enshrined in the Florida Constitution.

Under Florida law, most meetings—and they can consist of as few as two elected officials—are open to the public. Yet when those same politicians whom Florida requires to meet "in the sunshine" travel en masse to Washington, the shades are drawn. Congress and the executive branch write the rules here, and the rules often favor secrecy.

In meetings earlier this month, several commissioners were scheduled for meetings with Bush administration officials from which the public was barred. They also met with members of Congress, who aren't required to open meetings to the public.

Consider: One lunch meeting in the Capitol included at least seven commissioners, along with county Mayor Carlos Alvarez. In Miami, the meeting would be open to the public. But with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi poised to address the group, a Democratic House staffer asked a reporter in attendance to leave the room. Asked why, the staffer replied, "This is Congress."

The reporter was allowed to remain in the room after County Manager George Burgess confirmed that the meeting, if held back home, would be open. But the news media were barred from other meetings, including one with Federal Emergency Management Agency Director David Paulison.

"Things are different up here," said Ellen Miller, the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a group founded in 2006 with the goal of using technology to enhance congressional transparency. "They've pretty much set up a firewall around themselves."

Though Florida has one of the broadest open-meeting laws in the nation, most states have some rules "that make it difficult to shut down meetings when a certain percentage of elected officials are in the room," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

But she noted that the federal government, particularly after Sept. 11, has made it clear that federal rules trump local.

"They've made it clear that they don't care what the state's open-records law might be," Dalglish said. "They've repeatedly said, `This is the federal government, and if we are sharing federal information with you, federal law applies.'"

Members of the Miami-Dade County Commission defend their right to lobby federal officials and argue that it would put Miami-Dade County at a competitive disadvantage if it couldn't meet with the officials, even if the public can't get into the meetings.

"We're the best lobbyists for our county," Commissioner Katy Sorenson said. "When our elected officials (in Washington) see us, it lends legitimacy."

Commissioner Sally Heyman, who started the trips three years ago, said she vetted the concept with county attorneys to ensure that commissioners didn't run afoul of the law. She said they didn't talk county business when they were traveling together and discussed only issues that already had come before the commission. On this trip the commission lobbied for federal cash for county priorities, including the air and sea ports, mass transit and dredging the Miami River.

"The last thing I'm going to do is put my colleagues in violation of the law," Heyman said. "We're not talking with anyone about anything that hasn't already come up in a public meeting."

County attorney Murray Greenberg said he signed off on the trips, noting that the county provides the public and the media with a schedule of its meetings, listing the times, locations and attendees.

"I have said it's seemingly OK; we don't want to be the only county in the country that doesn't get an ability to communicate with leaders in D.C.," Greenberg said. "We advertise the meetings. Any press or public who wants to go can go. Whether the administration in Washington lets you in is a separate issue. We can't control what a federal agency does or doesn't do."

Open-government advocates said the county easily could sidestep potential violations by sending staffers or the county mayor and a single commissioner. It's the group travel by elected commissioners that violates open-government requirements, they said.

"I'm prepared to assume they are doing it for the best of intentions. That's not the question," said Sam Terilli, former Miami Herald legal counsel who's now a journalism professor at the University of Miami. "But it's the decision of the people of Florida that we want our commissioners to meet in the sunshine when they discuss the people's business."

The Naples Daily News reported last week that Naples' city attorney has warned city council members there against lobbying state lawmakers together when they visit the state capital, Tallahassee. That followed a story suggesting that a Collier County commission trip to Washington also was skirting the Sunshine Law.

That was the opinion of then-Florida Attorney General Jim Smith in 1980, said Adria Harper, the director of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, which lobbies for open government.

"If the Sunshine Law didn't apply out of state, we'd have people crossing the Georgia border every day," she said. "We have this law because people want to know what their government is doing."


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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