April 27, 2017
The Florida Constitution and the state’s famed Sunshine Law give residents the right to observe meetings held by their elected officials.
But a bill going to the state House floor today would render significant aspects of that constitutional guarantee meaningless by allowing local elected officials — from city and county commissioners to school board members — to meet behind closed doors and discuss public matters in secret.
The proposed law (HB 843) from Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, would exempt from open meetings requirements any gatherings between two members of a local, county or state agency board or commission. Those officials wouldn’t have to give any notice about their meeting and they wouldn’t have to keep any records of what they discuss. The exemption would apply to boards or commissions with at least five members.
The proposal has drawn rebuke from advocates of open government, including some elected officials and the First Amendment Foundation, which said the proposal “raises serious constitutional questions.”
St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice said allowing two elected officials to hash out policy behind closed doors would essentially gut open government.
“You might as well just do away with the Sunshine Law,” she said.
Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1992 that guarantees the public’s right of access to public meetings.
First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen wrote to Donalds that his proposal “precludes any meaningful opportunity for public oversight and accountability” and “invites pernicious mischief by our elected officials.” (The Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald are foundation members.)
“The right of Floridians to oversee their government and hold it accountable for its actions — a right imbedded in our constitution — far outweighs such minor annoyances” as “inconvenience,” Petersen wrote.
Donalds argues the Sunshine Law needs to be more practical in letting local elected officials conduct public business.
“If we’re going to be honest with ourselves and have a balance between proper governance and transparency, it is incumbent on local officials to be able to talk with each other so they come up with the best solutions possible,” said Donalds, whose wife, Erika, is currently an elected school board member in Collier County.
“This is where we have to be adults about this,” Donalds added. “Not every conversation is ready for public consumption.”
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, had vowed to emphasize and improve transparency in government this session, but Donalds’ bill was fast-tracked to the floor after just two committee hearings.
A companion bill in the Senate (SB 1004) from conservative Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, was not heard, so it’s unlikely Donalds’ proposal will become law this year even if it passes the House. A floor vote is expected Monday.
Donalds said there are still limits on his bill. The two elected officials meeting privately would be barred from making formal decisions or pledging future votes, and they could not discuss any public spending or contracts.
“Those are deliberations that should happen in front of the public at all times,” Donalds said, but he said on policy matters, “it’s probably a good thing” for two elected officials to talk privately “and clear up a lot of the misconceptions before you have the real debate” in a public meeting.
Elected officials in the Tampa Bay area had varying opinions on Donalds’ proposed change.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, a former state lawmaker, who frequently bemoans from the dais that he can’t speak to his colleagues outside of public meetings, said he is following Donalds’ bill closely and is cheering it on.
Fellow County Commissioner Les Miller, who previously served as Democratic leader in the House and Senate, agreed that Sunshine restrictions on local government meetings can be “frustrating.”
“I can’t talk to a commissioner and try to negotiate, and sometimes that’s frustrating because we might be able to work something out,” Miller said. “But Sunshine is the law of the land and the people have said they want to see how their government works.”
Rice, on the other hand, offered an unqualified rejection of the bill.
“You can put that in the bucket of one of the many things our state Legislature has come up with: a wrong solution to the wrong problem,” Rice said Thursday.
The need to schedule public meetings over the smallest policy details might be wearing at times, Rice added, “but the good outweighs the bad.”
How the public meetings law could change
Now: Florida’s Sunshine Law requires all meetings of any public body of the executive branch of state government, county, city school district or special district to be open to the public, with limited exceptions. It prohibits two members of the same body to meet and discuss policy without giving the public notice of the meeting or allowing it to attend.
If HB 843 passes: Two members of a public body now governed by the Sunshine Law would be allowed to meet to discuss policy without notice to the public or allowing the public to attend. No minutes of the meeting would be required. But the members would not be allowed to take formal action, or agree to do so at a future meeting, or to discuss a specific expenditure, contract or any public business that involves a direct expenditure of public money. [READ MORE]