April 27, 2017
The state House of Representatives is considering a bill that would eclipse Florida’s Sunshine Law.
With only days remaining in the Legislature’s 2017 annual regular session, CS/HB 843 is on the House’s special order calendar Friday. Preservation of open government requires rejection of this horrible bill.
For decades, the consensus understanding of the application of the Sunshine Law, which has been in effect since 1967, is that members of city councils, county commissions and certain other boards aren’t allowed to discuss public business among themselves in private. The state attorney general’s longtime assessment makes that clear: “The Sunshine Law applies to all discussions or deliberations as well as the formal action taken by a board or commission. The law, in essence, is applicable to any gathering, whether formal or casual, of two or more members of the same board or commission to discuss some matter on which foreseeable action will be taken by the public board or commission. There is no requirement that a quorum be present for a meeting to be covered under the law.”
There have been disputes over the law’s application — one high-profile case has divided the city of Sarasota and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate — but the general idea has been understood. The guiding principle has been that, if a matter is before a public body (or likely to come before it), officials of that body should not discuss or debate that matter with each other — except in public.
This worthy concept is enshrined in the Florida Constitution, which states: “All meetings of any collegial public body of the executive branch of state government or of any collegial public body of a county, municipality, school district, or special district, at which official acts are to be taken or at which public business of such body is to be transacted or discussed, shall be open and noticed to the public and meetings of the legislature shall be open and noticed as provided …”
Floridians have legal and constitutional rights to attend meetings of elected officials and advisory boards. These rights should not be trivialized, as CS/HB 843 seeks to do.
The bill by Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican from Naples, would substantially change the law — radically, we believe — and diminish its value. It states that “two members of any board or commission … may meet in private and discuss public business without providing notice of such meeting or recording such meeting …”
Discussing public business in private is an oxymoron. This bill is just plain stupid.
The bill further states: “Individual members of any board or commission are authorized to gather information and discuss topics, ideas and issues in private, one-on-one meetings in order to facilitate a more thorough vetting of policies and appropriations that such members are responsible for examining and understanding. Exempting such one-on-one meetings from public meetings requirements will allow such members to better serve the interests of the public which they have been elected or appointed to represent.”
That vetting of public business should be done in public.
Yes, the bill contains exceptions. Officials supposedly couldn’t “adopt a resolution or rule or take any other formal action, or agree to do so at a future meeting.” They couldn’t discuss an appropriation or contract involving “indirect expenditure of public funds to a private vendor” or seek to “frustrate or circumvent the purpose” of the Sunshine Law.
Yet since there would be no notice, recording or reporting requirements for such meetings, the public would be in the dark about them and their content — frustrating, circumventing and undermining the Sunshine Law’s very intent. [READ MORE]