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Public Land / Private Venture
by Ron Davis
A Florida newspaper publisher will have to abandon its quest to review the tenant leases of a shopping center that is planned for development on government land.
That’s because Florida’s courts have ruled that the development is a private venture and thus its records are not subject to public scrutiny.
The newspaper publisher is Weekly Planet, Inc., which has argued that the shopping center venture is indeed a public project. In fact, the owner of the land on which the center is planned is the Hillsborough County (Tampa) Aviation Authority, an agency created by the Florida legislature for the purpose of operating all publicly owned aviation facilities in the county. (Currently, the agency is responsible for the operation of Tampa International Airport.)
But the airport has never itself used the site of the planned shopping center. In the past that site has been leased to a motel, a golf course, and professional football’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers for use as a training facility. And all leases for such ventures, as well as for the shopping center, are matters of public record, available for inspection by the news media.
Moreover, under Florida law, documents prepared by and solely within the possession of private parties may become public records if they are prepared “in connection with the transaction of official business by an agency.”
On the basis of that law, Weekly Planet asserts that it has a right to inspect the leases of tenants of the shopping center “to determine whether local taxpayers are receiving the best possible financial arrangement.”
In disallowing such inspections by Weekly Planet, a Florida appellate court explained the distinction between the types of leases involved: “The governmental agency leased undeveloped land, which is owned by the government but not currently needed for any governmental function, to a private business for the purposes of private development. The agency simply leased land on a long-term basis in exchange for rent with the knowledge that the developer tenant is planning such a commercial venture…. There is no justification to then open the records of a private business to inspection when it is competing with other private businesses and is not performing any delegated governmental function.” (Weekly Planet v. Hillsborough Co. Aviation, 829 So.2d 970 [Fla.App. 2 Dist. 2002])
Decision: November 2002
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