County clarifies meeting access protocols

The Marion County Commission is shown during meeting in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted March 19, 2021 | By Carlos Medina, Ocala Gazette

The Marion County Commission is shown during a meeting in Ocala on Tuesday, March 16. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 

Marion County clarified protocols issued this week that seemed to change the level of access the media had to public meetings and elected officials.

Thursday evening, the county apologized “for the overly restrictive tone and nature of those protocols.”

“Marion County Public Relations prides ourselves on transparency and the strong relationships we have with media members, who help us carry out our mission by circulating critical information,” Public Relations Director Kelli Hart was quoted in a press release detailing the clarification.

On Tuesday, the public relations office sent out the new protocol:

  • All media will need to coordinate with Marion County Public Relations prior to attendance of or coverage of any meetings.
  • All media will check in at the front desk of the Administration building, and a representative of Public Relations will escort media members to their desired location.
  • No interviews of County Commissioners or staff will be allowed prior to or following any meetings without prior coordination with Marion County Public Relations. Interviews with the general public are permitted, and may take place outside of the auditorium, out of the way of other guests and preferably outside of the Administration building, assuming those individuals agree to media interviews.
  • Media members wishing to record any portion of the meeting will need to arrive and be fully set up prior to the beginning of any meeting.
  • Media equipment may be set up behind the dais prior to the beginning of any meeting, but no media personnel will be allowed behind the dais once the meeting has begun and until the meeting has recessed or adjourned.
  • Unless previously coordinated with Marion County Public Relations, no media will be allowed beyond areas otherwise accessible to the general public – including areas beyond the commission auditorium curtains and behind the dais.

Of the original six protocols, two remained after Thursday’s clarification:

  • Media members wishing to record any portion of Marion County Board of County Commissioners’ meetings are encouraged to arrive and set up equipment in our auditorium prior to the beginning of any meeting. If you would like to record a portion of the meeting, or to begin recording after a meeting has begun, please contact Marion County Public Relations to allow us to best accommodate your needs.
  • To better facilitate coverage of meetings and county business, we encourage media members to coordinate with Marion County Public Relations prior to attending our meetings. You may also check in and identify yourself as a media member at the front desk of our Administration building upon arriving at a meeting so that our Public Relations staff can best assist with your coverage.

The changes came after the original protocols were ripped by freedom of information experts, including James McGuire, an attorney for the Florida Press Association, who said they appeared improper and unenforceable.

“The county can’t tell the media not to interview commissioners without first getting permission. Media can talk to whoever they want.  If a commissioner doesn’t want to speak, he doesn’t have to,” McGuire wrote in an email.

Gunita Sims, a legal fellow with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, concurred.

“As a general principle, it’s presumptively improper to discriminate between media and non-media for the purposes of administering an open meetings law,” Sims said.

Jeannie Rickman, the assistant county administrator in charge of public relations, said the protocols were not reviewed by her or County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes before they were released.

She said they came about because of an incident in early February with a television news crew out of Orlando.

At the time, the commission was debating whether to ban internet cafes, said Commission Chairman Jeff Gold on Friday.

The television crew got up behind the commission dais to set up a shot during the meeting. Gold said he mentioned the incident to the public relations department but said he did not know it had morphed into the protocols issued on Tuesday.

He said he would never try to restrict access to public meetings. Three other commissioners, Kathy Bryant, Craig Curry and Carl Zalak also said they had no advanced knowledge of the protocols. Commissioner Michelle Stone was not reached.

“Marion County is dedicated to providing outstanding customer service and we aim to serve our media partners and improve media relations through improved communication and accommodation,” Hart is quoted in Thursday’s press release.

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