Board members should wise up, keep government business off Facebook

Lake Okeechobee I Photo: LEAH VOSS/TCPALM

TC Palm Editorial

May 25, 2017

Here’s what happened: Three members of the same public board discussed potential government business on a social media site.

If the three were doing the same via email, or talking in a hallway or by conference call, there would be no question Florida’s Sunshine Law had been violated.

Yet some doubt whether the law is abrogated when public officials converse with one another on social media.

It’s time to end the speculation.

“If they’re talking back and forth about an issue, that’s a meeting; and by law, it has to be announced beforehand and be open to the public.”

So said Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, the Tallahassee-based nonprofit dedicated to open government.

State law prohibits two or more members of an elected or appointed board from discussing matters that may result in foreseeable action outside of a public meeting that has been duly noticed.

Petersen’s comment was in reference to several social media conversations between three members of the South Florida Water Management District’s Water Resources Advisory Commission: Nyla Pipes of Port St. Lucie, Newton Earl Cook of Tequesta and Mikhael Elfenbein of Englewood. On at least five occasions in the past two months, the trio chatted on Pipes’ Facebook page about the reservoir the Florida Legislature funded in Senate Bill 10.

Of the commission trio, Petersen said they can express their opinions on social media, but “they just can’t talk with each other on Facebook about commission business.”

An April 2009 opinion by former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum echoes this conclusion. [READ MORE[

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