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Florida senators violated open meeting rules at Governor's Mansion, First Amendment lawyer says

TALLAHASSEE — Three top Senate Republicans violated their chamber's own open meeting requirement when they discussed the state budget at a private dinner with Gov. Rick Scott, a First Amendment attorney said Tuesday.

"The meeting was held in a location not open to the public," said Jim Rhea, director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. "And people who asked to attend were not permitted to come in."

Senate President Mike Haridopolos' spokesman, David Bishop, said, "We disagree," but would not elaborate.

Haridopolos, who removed the door of his office last month to demonstrate his commitment to open government, was aware that his top budget writer, Sen. J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, and two other senators were dining with Scott at the mansion on Monday, the day Scott unveiled his budget proposal.

A public notice about the dinner was posted on the Senate website on Monday. But Senate rules also require meetings to be reasonably open to the public. Bishop did not respond to a question about how the meeting satisfied that rule.

Bishop was informed Monday that Scott's spokesman, Brian Burgess, said the meeting was not open and denied a request from the Times/Herald on Monday to observe the dinner.

Scott scheduled the meeting as a "social dinner" with Alexander, Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville and Sen. Andy Gardiner of Orlando.

Scott's guest list also included two reporters. But neither Senate rules nor the state Constitution stipulates that including selected media at an event absolves elected officials from opening meetings to the public.

One of the reporters, Gary Fine­out, who reports for the bill tracking service LobbyTools, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and other outlets, wrote on his Fine Print blog that Alexander talked about Scott's budget proposal and Scott urged him to "just pass it."

Later in the dinner, one of Scott's top aides told senators that the nation would be watching to see whether lawmakers pass Scott's "fiscally conservative" budget.

Gaetz and Alexander also talked about the Florida Housing Finance Corp., which helps build low-income housing.

Alexander noted the surplus of homes on the market and questioned the need for low-income housing. Scott said he didn't ask for any new money for the group.

The lawmakers also talked about changes to Citizens Property Insurance Corp.; weigh stations along state highways; attracting new Major League Baseball teams to Florida; and a bill being written by Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, that would ban the use of psychotropic drugs on foster children.

Asked about the meeting on Tuesday, Scott said, "I'm comfortable we comply with the law."

Times/Herald writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Florida senators violated open meeting rules at Governor's Mansion, First Amendment lawyer says 02/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 8, 2011 11:26pm]
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