Key Biscayne’s mayor says as soon as tonight’s meeting, the Village Council might reverse course about blocking any reporter from personally attending its so-called hybrid meetings. The statement comes as two statewide journalism groups wrote to the Council saying the Village was violating Florida’s Sunshine Law.
“It will be on the agenda,” says Mayor Mike Davey. “I’d prefer to have reporters…and I’ll be asking the question,” he adds.
The mayor says he’s aware that Florida Sunshine statutes require the media be allowed to attend public meetings.
“I think it’s a fair point,” says Davey.
The Florida First Amendment Foundation, an advocacy group promoting access for the media and public, sent a letter to Mayor Davey April 8th. It took issue with the Council’s expulsion of Key Biscayne Independent reporter Tony Winton from Council Chambers just before the start of the April 6th hybrid meeting.
“The exclusion of the press violates not only the Sunshine law, it also violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, by infringing on on the freedom of the press,“ the letter states, adding “especially when access to chambers is being limited to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”
Five council members were in the chamber and two others attended remotely, following an October vote to let the mayor set rules for hybrid meetings. The move came after a decision Nov. 1 by Gov. Ron DeSantis to rescind permission for virtual government meetings.
Winton was ejected before the meeting despite being the only reporter present. . At the time, some council members asked why Winton could not remain.
Winton said he came to the meeting in person because of accusations of corruption in the selection process for a new Village manager. Council Member Luis Lauredo claimed Mar. 30 there was a “conspiracy” to promote Interim Manager Charles Press as the permanent manager. The charge roiled the Council and led to a public “sunshine” meeting between Lauredo and Council Member Brett Moss, who had suggested Press as a possible candidate. The April 5th sunshine meeting in Council chambers was open to the public and several community members attended in person.
During a previously unpublished discussion obtained through a public records request Council Member Luis Lauredo told fellow council members “we have to settle this.”
Ultimately, by a 7-0 vote, the Council agreed to sustain the mayor’s expulsion of Winton. A separate motion to let Winton remain in the chambers was made by Council Member Ignacio Segurola and seconded by Davey, but it was never acted upon and Segurola withdrew it.
The Council voted unanimously to ask the administration to “prepare for open meetings as best as possible following CDC guidelines” by the next meeting April 27th. But tonight’s meeting was again advertised as a “hybrid” meeting. And the Council has set another fully virtual meeting for April 29th to discuss changes to the Village zoning code.
On Monday, Mayor Davey said Village Attorney Chad Friedman has told him Winton or any other reporter should be denied entry just like any member of the public.
“It’s not up to me. It’s a safety issue,” he said. However, safety issues are unclear. Winton was fully masked April 6 and was socially distant from the council members on the dais.
Since November, other Florida communities including the City of Miami have been allowing a limited number of print and photo journalists to attend public meetings in person.
Davey says he spoke with Interim Manager Charles Press on Saturday about greenlighting at least one member of the press and some members of the public to attend meetings.
“He (Press) got back to me and said ‘we’re not ready to do so now,” Davey says, citing the manager’s stated need for adding partitions.
“He’ll make a report.”
Some Council members said they supported restoring physical media access to meetings. “I suggest that we notify all media and let them attend if they so desire,” Vice Mayor Ed London said Monday night.
“I understand the frustration,” says Mayor Davey. “The legal arguments I’ll leave to the attorneys.”
On Monday, the Florida’s Society of Professional Journalists Chapter also expressed “disappointment” about preventing the Key Biscayne Independent’s reporter from attending an in- person meeting.
Its letter reads in part “closed door meetings are a violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law and the U.S. Constitution.”
SPJ’s President Emily Bloch called for both transparency and Covid accommodations in time for tonight’s hybrid meeting.
“We urge you to respect the rights of Key Biscayne residents and reporters. “
“It’s going to come up,” says Mayor Davey.
Susan Candiotti, a former national correspondent for CNN, is a member of the board of directors of Miami Fourth Estate, the parent organization of the Key Biscayne Independent.