On May 2 the Press Club of Southwest Florida Board passed a resolution calling on Rep. Francis Rooney to open up a closed “private” roundtable on harmful algal blooms to the press and public.
Rooney, who represents the 19th Congressional District from Marco Island to Cape Coral, had scheduled a roundtable discussion for May 7 at the Emergent Technologies Institute of Florida Gulf Coast University.
The meeting brought together federal officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration as well as state agencies and a wide spectrum of local elected officials to discuss the issues raised by the blooms. All were taxpayer-funded and supported public agencies and officials.
The NPC resolution pointed out that the region has suffered from the blue-green algal blooms and red tide in the past; that Florida’s Sunshine Law intends to open government up as much as possible to the press and public and that these matters are of vital importance to all Southwest Floridians.
NPC President Julie Pedretti also sent a letter to Rooney advocating an open and public meeting.
Since NPC is committed to the First Amendment, freedom of the press and public access, the resolution and letter called on Rooney to open up the meeting to full, live coverage and adhere to the letter and spirit of the Sunshine Law.
Local media reaction
Local media were remarkably assertive during the affair, with WINK-TV, the CBS affiliate in Fort Myers, taking the most assertive stance. Not only did investigative reporter Lauren Sweeney aggressively pursue the story, calling every listed roundtable participant, but the station itself challenged the legality of the meeting that Rooney had declared was “private.” Karen Kammer, a lawyer with the firm Mitrani, Raynor, Adamsky and Toland, in Miami, Fla., wrote to Rooney arguing that closing the meeting violated Florida’s Sunshine Law and that he had no standing to close a meeting of state and local officials.
First out of the gate with the story was News-Press reporter Amy Bennett Williams on April 29 when she reported “Public, media excluded from upcoming Rooney roundtable on toxic algae blooms at FGCU.”
Dave Elias of NBC-2 followed on April 30 with a report that got a reaction from everyday Southwest Floridians concerned about their water quality—and resentful of their exclusion. “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.
Similarly, WGCU, the area’s public broadcast station, actively reported on the closure with Julie Glenn reporting on May 2 that “a concerned public, frazzled by years of limited information on the toxicity of annual blue green algae blooms, wants to hear what’s said.”
And even the Naples Daily News was moved to publish an editorial calling on Rooney to open the meeting in “Congressman Rooney should let the public in on toxic algae discussions at FGCU” written by Brent Batten for both that newspaper and the Fort Myers News-Press.
Ultimately, the roundtable occurred behind closed doors on May 7 at the university. Press and public were barred from attending.
However, Rooney held a second meeting of local conservation and community groups on May 10, which was open to the press and public, although no lawmakers, elected officials, or state or federal experts were present.
Nonetheless, the NPC stood up for its principles of excellence in journalism, a free press and the First Amendment and will continue to oppose improper secrecy and restrictions and stand for a free, open and independent press.