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Toll roads meetings must stop, Florida open government group says

The First Amendment Foundation says they violate the Sunshine Law.

TALLAHASSEE —The Florida Department of Transportation’s virtual meetings over building more than 300 miles of new toll roads violate the state’s Sunshine Law and must stop, the First Amendment Foundation told the agency on Thursday.

The meetings have had technical glitches that have prevented the public from attending, wrote Pamela Marsh, the president of the foundation. Both the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald are members of the organization.

“All of these six meeting have been conducted in violation of the law,” Marsh wrote. “Until (the department) can provide access to ‘all interested persons’ it cannot proceed without further violating Florida law.”

A transportation department spokeswoman disagreed and said the meetings have had higher engagement than in-person meetings, which stopped because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Related: Florida’s toll road projects are moving ahead with virtual meetings this week

“These virtual meetings have made it so anyone from South Florida to North Florida can attend and be heard, and we would expect the First Amendment Foundation to celebrate this additional transparency while we work to keep our fellow citizens safe,” spokeswoman Beth Frady said in a statement.

The Department of Transportation has been under pressure to meet tight deadlines to plan and build more than 300 miles of controversial new toll roads across the state. The roads, which lawmakers said should be finished by 2030, would extend the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border, create a new road linking Polk and Collier counties and extend Florida’s Turnpike to meet the Suncoast.

Proposed corridors for three new toll road expansions. [ LANGSTON TAYLOR | Tampa Bay Times ]

State lawmakers last year ordered the department to build the roads and create committees of local officials, business groups and environmentalists to come up with recommendations. The three task force boards were given little more than a year to provide their reports to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Legislature. Those reports are now due Nov. 15.

A slew of environmental groups have come out against the roads, which would go through some of the state’s most environmentally sensitive areas. One federal biologist warned the southern road could drive the Florida panther to extinction.

Related: The Florida panther could go extinct if this toll road is built, emails say

Marsh wrote to state transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault that state laws and rules allow the department to hold meetings virtually. But the rule states that if technical problems occur that prevent people from attending, “the agency shall terminate the proceeding until the problems have been corrected.”

During the six virtual task force meetings held so far, “obvious and undeniable webinar technical and access failures occurred,” Marsh wrote.

“At none of these meetings did (Florida Department of Transportation) terminate the proceedings as required by law,” she wrote. “Rather, (the department) proceeded with its virtual-only approach, despite technical failures during each of those six webinars.”

Marsh added: “All portions of the Sunshine Law continue to apply even during this horrible pandemic.”

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