FAF Letter to CRC Chairman RE: Sunshine Issues

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December 7, 2017

The Honorable Carlos Beruff, Chair
Constitutional Revision Commission
400 S. Monroe Street, The Capitol
Tallahassee, FL 32399

Dear Chairman Beruff:

The First Amendment Foundation received a disturbing complaint last week regarding a possible sunshine violation that occurred during the CRC’s Education Committee November 27 meeting.

The unedited video recording of the meeting shows the members of the Education Committee voting down Proposal 32.  Immediately after the vote, Commissioner Sprowls informed Commissioner Johnson, committee chair, that staff was researching whether the defeated proposal could be “retained” within the committee.  After a very brief discussion, Johnson called a recess and all members of the committee left the meeting room and walked behind a partition.  There is no audio of any discussions that may have occurred among commissioners after they left the room during the recess.

Approximately ten minutes later, the commissioners returned to the committee room and Chairwoman Johnson called for a re-vote on the proposal.  Commissioner Donalds interrupted the vote by making a motion to temporarily postpone Proposal 32.  The Chair ruled that no vote was required and announced that Proposal 32, which had been defeated prior to the recess, was temporarily postponed.  There was no discussion or debate by committee members and the meeting then was quickly adjourned.

The procedural actions taken by the members of the Education Committee raise serious concerns, but we are far more troubled by the possible sunshine law violations.

Florida’s Attorney General has advised that discussions of public business that are audible only to “a select few” may violate the state’s Sunshine Law.  [AGO 71-159)  Additionally, in Citizens for Sunshine, Inc. v. City of Sarasota, the court held that a private discussion of public business between two members of a board during a meeting recess violated the law.  [No. 2010CA4387NC (Fla. 12th Cir. Ct. February 27, 2012)]

Granted, we do not have any direct evidence that Education Committee members discussed Proposal 32 during the ten-minute recess.  However, it would certainly appear that such discussions took place. The committee recessed very soon after Commissioner Sprowls’ comments regarding the retention of Proposal 32.  Upon returning from the recess, Commissioner Donalds interrupted a re-vote on the proposal and asked that the defeated proposal be temporarily postponed. Chairwoman Johnson agreed and announced that Proposal 32 was temporarily postponed.  There was no discussion or debate of the interrupted vote or Donalds’ request, and the meeting was promptly adjourned.

The purpose of our open government laws is to allow the public an opportunity to oversee its government and hold it accountable for its actions.  Those laws help to instill public trust in the governing process.  The actions of the Education Committee last week erode public confidence and can lead citizens to the conclusion that the CRC meetings are mere window-dressing for pre-determined outcomes.

We ask that you, as Chair, require all CRC members to uphold the democratic values that serve as the basis for Florida’s sunshine laws, and demand full and complete compliance with the law.

We look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

Barbara A. Petersen, President

cc:        Commissioner Marva Johnson, Chair, CRC Education Committee

First Amendment Foundation Board of Trustees

Florida Society of News Editors Board of Trustees

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