Daniel Ruth

Power brokers pull the blind on sunshine

This is what happens when public boards are populated by folks who are more politically incestuous than the Medicis meet the Habsburgs.

Our fair village has no shortage of commissions and authorities to which local mandarins, hotsy-tots, blue bloods, potentates and big shots get themselves appointed to serve.

It is probably best to think of these various agencies as sort of subsidiaries of the tony power broker-laden Palma Ceia Country Club/Tampa Yacht Club axis of dry martinis, where transparency goes to die.

Among the crown jewels of all of these Skull & Bones "public service" callings is the Florida State Fair Authority, which controls some 330 acres of prime real estate (read: fiefdom) just off Interstate 4 in eastern Grecostan.

Traditionally, members of these gold ol' boys and girls clubs are subjected to a briefing by an expert on Florida's wide-ranging public records and public meetings statutes — the state's Sunshine Laws.

There's a reason why we have such broad open records/meetings rules and regulations. It is largely because of Hillsborough County, which was once regarded as so historically greased-palmed, corrupt and ethically challenged it made Deadwood look like Brigadoon.

And thus members serving on these boards must subject themselves to the open-government seminar, which apparently is about as welcomed an exercise as Dick Cheney pondering the U.S. Constitution.

That may explain why within moments after last December's Sunshine Law review, which apparently went over about as well as a Somali pirate enrolling at the Merchant Marine Academy, State Fair Authority chairman Sandy MacKinnon turned the board into something out of 33rd-degree Masonic Lodge meeting.

At issue was a plot by MacKinnon to covertly work with a developer and his consultants, former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and well-wired local lawyer David Mechanik, ostensibly to dragoon away the Tampa Bay Rays from their Quonset hut of a stadium in St. Petersburg to a possible new hotel/retail/sports complex to be conveniently located on the State Fair grounds.

Of course all the pinstripe suits deny this has absolutely anything to do with grifting the Rays away from St. Petersburg. And the pretty little maps released this week show hotels, restaurants, sports complex — but no baseball stadium. You may now commence all the winking and nodding.

Even though this was a public meeting of the fair authority, MacKinnon urged his publicly appointed members to keep the details of the chairman's secret negotiations out of the public eye.

Unfortunately for MacKinnon, minutes of the public meeting — including his direction to board members to clam up like Thomas Pynchon — are (ta-dah!) public record. And so are e-mails between the chairman to Greco and Mechanik.

The Sunshine Law is pretty clear here. Two or more board members are prohibited from discussing in private matters that are likely to come before them in their official capacities. The law also prohibits people to serve as go-betweens between board members for the same purpose.

MacKinnon dismissed the Sunshine Law as little more than an irritant getting in the way of progress, like a caraway seed stuck between his teeth.

"I know the media like the Sunshine Laws. And I understand the purpose of them," Mac-Kinnon, told the Times' Bill Varian, adding: "I could never run my business that way."

MacKinnon is chief executive officer of Yale Lift Life Trucks of Florida & Georgia, which might suggest he knows a thing or two about greasing some skids, but it's fairly obvious he doesn't "understand" the state's open records/meetings laws. If the chairman wants to run his private business as if he were Greta Garbo, fine. But as the leader of a public body overseeing public money and public land, he is legally subject to public accountability.

In essence, what MacKinnon is saying is that he is all in favor of public access to information until that the public really needs to know something. Can't have that. After all, if you give the public information, well, then they'll know stuff. Obviously no good can come from this.

It is certainly true Florida's Sunshine Laws can be awkward, cumbersome and frustrating, especially to folks like Sandy MacKinnon and his star chamber board of mutes. But these laws exist to protect the public interest, the same public interests the chairman took a public oath to respect.

The problem is that authorities like the state fair board are comprised of the area's power brokers who all socialize with one another, gather in the same luxury boxes at sports events, attend each other's charity events, vacation together and linger over cocktails at the same clubs.

So when MacKinnon and Greco and Mechanik and the rest of the fair board all started playing footsie-wootsie with each other and took a vow of silence, it could be reasoned they felt they were perfectly well within the spirit of the Sunshine Law.

After all, everyone who was really important knew what was going on. Who else mattered?

Power brokers pull the blind on sunshine 04/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 8:44pm]

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