Hillsborough to improve lobbying, Sunshine oversight

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Florida -- County commissioners are set to move forward Wednesday with rewritten policies regarding lobbyist registration and public records requests following 10Investigates stories exposing failures in oversight.

The changes will include issuing county-owned cell phones to commissioners for public business, where text messages can be better-archived. However, commissioners' private cell phones - much like their email addresses - will remain subject to the state's Sunshine Laws when the topic of the conversation relates to government business.

In September, 10Investigates exposed how Hillsborough County wasn't enforcing its own lobbying rules, which suggest county oversight when consultants like Beth Leytham speak to commissioners and staff about issues coming before them.

WATCH: How politicians reacted to 10Investigates' questions

A month later, as it continued its fight for public records county commissioners initially said didn't exist, 10Investigates finally obtained emails it had first requested in June. Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman apologized, while a more combative Commissioner Ken Hagan blamed county staff and ordered changes to county policies.

10Investigates later exposed how County Attorney Chip Fletcher advised officials on how they could delete public records, such as text messages, by utilizing a loophole in the state's record retention laws. However, Florida's First Amendment Foundation has said the record deletion was probably illegal.

Wednesday's commission actions are the latest fallout from the year-long WTSP investigation, which has also prompted local and state ethics investigations. A review by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is expected to be finalized later this month.

Other changes include establishing the county attorney's office as the middleman for all public record requests to county commissioners. The state's public records laws (FSS 119) prohibit establishing a "filter" for records requests that may slow down a request's transmission to a requester, but the county tells 10Investigates the new procedure is to simply provide uniformity in how it handles record requests and that "documents that do not need redacting will be sent to the requestor without delay."

The county attorney's office is also planning on archiving and posting all records requests online so the general public can see what's been requested and what documents have been provided.  The governor's office adopted a similar policy last year to both praise and criticism from open records advocates, some of whom were concerned publicly-posting every request could intimidate some individuals, discouraging them from seeking public records.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

12/29/15 - Sheriff wraps up Go Hillsborough investigation
12/16/15 - Taxpayers paying tab on commissioner, Buckhorn ethics cases
12/4/15 - State investigating Buckhorn, commissioners over ethics

12/1/15 - County attorney advises commissioners how to destroy records
11/10/15 - Iowa Senator takes notice of Leytham stories
11/5/15 - Go Hillsborough advances despite lingering suspicion
11/4/15 - 10Investigates prompts commission ethics tussle
10/26/15 - 10Investigates gets emails officials said didn't exist
10/7/15 - Hillsborough moves to save transportation expansion
10/1/15 - Tampa cancels out Leytham-related contract
9/29/15 - Buckhorn administration steered more work to Leytham
9/25/15 - Sheriff begins criminal investigation into Go Hillsborough
9/23/15 - 10Investigates prompts major lobbyist reform proposal
9/23/15 - Times editorial says county needs to answer 10Investigates questions
9/22/15 - Have Leytham connections doomed Go Hillsborough?
9/21/15 - County suspends contractor work on Go Hillsborough
9/17/15 - Tampa council rescinds Leytham-related contract
9/16/15 - Hillsborough Commission orders review after 10Investigates story
9/15/15 - Hillsborough Co. fails to police lobbyists
9/14/15 - How a political consultant is calling the shots; and getting your tax dollars

Find 10Investigates reporter Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips confidentially to npransky@wtsp.com.


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