Southwest Florida fights for inclusion in closed-door water quality roundtable

The federal government needs to catch up in helping Florida manage water and prevent harmful algal blooms. That’s the message Congressman Francis Rooney delivered on Capitol Hill this week.

As he asks for billions of dollars in federal support, he’s catching flack back in his district for keeping the public out of an important roundtable discussion.

When you ask Southwest Floridians, many will agree water is our life-blood, and no one questions that.

So the question is raised, why is a roundtable discussion set up to save our water closed to the public?

The summer of 2018 was a disaster for Southwest Florida.

Lee County District 4 Commissioner Brian Hamman says, “The tourists see the algae on TV and they stop coming, and they stop booking their hotel rooms … We need Washington to pay attention to our water issues.”

Business owners like Millennial Brewing’s Kyle Cebull agree that water quality is the most important local issue, calling it the “lifeblood of this area,” and “clearly a huge huge issue.”

He is one of the members of the public shut out of a roundtable meeting of federal, state and local leaders at Florida Gulf Coast University to discuss the issue next week.

The event is closed to the public.

Cebull thinks it should be an open meeting, “Transparency is critical. It’s just going to help improve everything, everyone hearing it first hand what’s being discussed and what everybody in that room thinks we should do.”

Congressman Rooney said in an email it’s important the agencies meet face-to-face, and that “We provide a private forum conducive to be an open technical discussion.”

“If they are concerned about,” Cebull said. “Members of the public getting out of hand, activists that can be a little more rambunctious then fine, but give us a way to see what’s going on and let us in on the conversations.”

But the media is shut out of the meeting as well, and there’s no planned online streaming, so there will be no record of what happens behind closed doors.

Our WINK News attorney believes it’s a violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law.

WINK News sent Rooney and other participants in the meeting a letter stating in part “The right of access is embedded in Florida’s constitution,” and the reasons for closing the meeting “do not exist in Florida law.”

LINK: Read our full legal argument why this meeting should be open to the public

Hamman says he would like to see a degree of transparency to find water quality solutions, hoping when Rooney does speak with the press after the meeting he is “open about what was discussed at the meeting, so we can get good information out there.”

Hamman also says amid the controversy over the closed-door meeting, we shouldn’t lose sight of what we need our federal leaders to do, “The federal government promised to be a 50/50 partner in building the comprehensive Everglades restoration plan but they are a billion dollars behind the state of Florida.”

This week in Washington, Rooney urged the House Appropriations Committee to fund Everglades and Lake Okeechobee watershed projects, emphasizing the area accounts for $1.3 trillion in real estate value in our state.

But Southwest Floridians want to know what the participants at next week’s roundtable will learn to help get us federal funding.

Rooney’s office has not responded to our attorney’s letter despite multiple follow-up attempt to have a discussion Friday.

For a full list of attendees at the roundtable, click here.

Reporter:Lauren Sweeney
Writer:Derrick Shaw
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