St. Augustine Record Editorial
April 27, 2017
A freshman stat[e] Rep Bryon Donalds, a Naples Republican, picked a winner as one of his first attempts at writing a bill.
Inquiring minds might wonder if others in the House may have dropped the suggestion for the genesis if House Bill 843. Because none of the veteran lawmakers would have the moxy to attempt to run with this bill themselves. (Remember the Life cereal — Let Mikey try it?).
HB 843 would make it legal for a county commission, city commission, school board or other elected board of at least five members for one member to hold one-on-one conversations with another member out of the Sunshine.
Florida’s Sunshine laws have been in existence for five decades to stop just these kinds of closed-door dealings on public issues.
It seems pretty straight-forwards from where we sit.
Granted, there’s no doubt that the Sunshine Laws hamstring good elected officials from an easier job. Following the law makes it tougher to ease the flow of municipal business by making all the discussions and all the decision in the public eye. It is a necessary evil and certainly better than the alternative — which is what HB 843 suggests.
It allows any two member of an elected board to speak privately about a matter likely to come before that board. There’s no notification, no minutes and no recording of the conversation.
Donalds says that the Sunshine Law struck him during his legislative orientation. He says that Legislators don’t have to follow the same rules as local elected officials and that creates a “double standard.”
He’s correct, But the fix isn’t to exempt the Sunshine at the local level, it’s to make it more applicable at the state level.
In truth, one-to-one conversations are already available to two elected members of a board. They can speak by email as much as they want. The huge difference is that there is a record of those conversations — or supposed to be.
The “five-member” part of the bill language is meant to, we suppose, ease the public’s mind that only two of the commissioners are speaking out of the Sunshine and it takes three to pass or kill an ordinance.
That’s so Pollyanna. The method to spread the conversation to a full board is called “Daisy-chaining” which is legal under the new bill. That’s when commissioner “A” speaks to commissioner “B” about, say new building code heights, and commissioner “B” then speaks with Commissioner “E” who might then phone up commissioners “C” … well, you get the picture.
The bill “Powders” itself in self-assuring language meant to smooth the very real chaff of the bill against open government. It prohibits collecting votes by two or more commissioners; nor can one indicate how he/she might vote. The bill expressly prohibits the pair from discussions about appropriations, contracts or expenditure of funds.
But it does not say how to stop these types of conversations — because who’s going to know what the two spoke of in a private conversation with no record available?
Do you trust your commissioners to act appropriately in back-room dealings — speaking metaphorically of course?
Barbara Peterson is president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. In a phone conversation Wednesday she wrapped it up in what we’d term a kind summation: “The opportunity for mischief is unfathomable.”
We’d say, under HB 843 the opportunity for corruption is unstoppable.
Either this bill goes away, or the public’s right to know will. [READ MORE]