Sheriff restricts media access

Emergency management meeting convenes elected officials, businesspeople and others.

File photo: Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods talks at a press conference in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, August 9, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted September 27, 2022 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty

Editor’s note: Preston Bowlin’s title was corrected.

As Hurricane Ian advanced on Florida on Tuesday, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods convened a morning meeting of elected officials and staff from the county, municipalities, and various businesses and organizations at the Emergency Operations Center, presumably to discuss storm preparations and readiness.

Business leaders from utility companies, leaders of the World Equestrian Center and officials from nonprofits including Marion Humane Society, United Way, and the Community Foundation were present for the hour-long session. The Gazette estimates at least sixty people were in attendance.

Local media representatives, however, were restricted from attending.

Woods told the Gazette he wanted everyone to be able to talk freely and was worried that “sensitive information” would be leaked to the public and cause harm. The public information officers for the sheriff indicated they would release to the media what information the meeting attendees deemed ready for public dissemination, but they did not provide a timeline, a curious decision when dealing with a public emergency where every hour of preparation counts.

There was no media release following the meeting identifying any information that resulted from the meeting.

The Gazette offered to clear whatever information it would report for accuracy and public safety with the public information office before publishing. Access to the meeting was still denied.

The Gazette explained to Woods the newspaper wanted to witness the interactions among the different agencies so it could report about that collaborative process after the storm passed. The Gazette noted that the dissemination of important information regarding the storm thus far seemed “clunky” at best, without much apparent centralized decision-making.

For example, a public notice about such things as sandbag locations was slow getting out at 4:40 p.m. only to close at 7 p.m. Also, a press conference about storm preparations called Monday by Marion County Commission Chair Carl Zalak inexplicably excluded newspapers, with only broadcast news stations invited. The session also was not streamed live online, again a missed opportunity to inform the public in real time.

Although the sheriff agreed with the Gazette’s initial observation, he still refused access at the pleading of his public information officer Valerie Strong who argued if the Gazette was allowed, other media persons would also have to be allowed. Strong told the Gazette, “It’s a private meeting.”

Numerous local business leaders, directors from nonprofits and representatives from utility companies were in attendance. The sheriff indicated they were permitted because they were “partners.” When asked why a newspaper is not considered a “partner” during a state of emergency, Woods’ response was, “I’m sorry.”

Following the meeting, some of those in attendance told the Gazette they did not recall any sensitive information being shared. A few indicated that the Emergency Management Director, Preston Bowlin asked county officials, officials from all municipalities, the school district, the Florida Highway Patrol and fire and police agencies if they had any questions or concerns or needs to be filled. According to the sources in attendance, not one request or piece of feedback was provided by anyone at the meeting in response to the inquiry by Bowlin.

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