Creative Loafing Tampa Bay by Justin Garcia
August 27, 2020
The First Amendment Foundation (FAF), a non-profit focused on free speech and open government, informed Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) Superintendent Addison Davis that his actions may have violated Florida’s Sunshine Law, which requires community access to public school proceedings.
Davis’ lawyer denies that the law was violated.
A leaked email shows that on August 14, FAF President and former U.S. Attorney Pamela C. Marsh contacted Davis’ office. Marsh explains that community members and journalists contacted FAF to voice concerns over Davis’ one-on-one calls to school board members.
“These calls led to an abrupt decision, announced by you yesterday after no public meeting,” the email reads. “This announcement was a stark change from the vote made by the Board in accordance with Florida’s Sunshine Laws on August 6th to delay physical school openings by four weeks.”
The email points out that Davis was quoted in the Tampa Bay Times saying that he had one-on-one conversations with the school board members about the state’s decision to override the school board’s vote and reopen brick and mortar schools by August 31.
The “spirit and intent of the Sunshine Law” mandates that all governmental proceedings related to public boards and commissions, as well as documents related to those proceedings, are made available to the public. Typically, all Hillsborough County School Board decisions are made through public meetings, which include time for guest speakers to comment on proposed items in the meeting agenda.
“We understand that these are difficult times and school deadlines are looming, but no portion of the Sunshine Law has been suspended during the pandemic crisis,” Marsh continues. “This is both a constitutional and statutory mandate that cannot be overruled by Executive or emergency order.”
The message also calls Davis’ one-on-one meetings “bad public policy,” before listing four Florida court cases in which the Sunshine Law was enforced; it also explains to Davis that it is, “impermissible for a superintendent to act as a ‘go-between’ among school board members in private meetings”.
Marsh wraps up her email by explaining to Davis that open government laws serve as a way for the public to hold the government accountable for its actions.
“Citizens should be encouraged to participate in their government and these one-on-one private calls act as a disincentive and deterrent to civic engagement,” Marsh wrote. “We strongly urge you and your fellow Board Members to desist in this questionable practice.”
The email was also CC’d to all Hillsborough County School Board Members. As of the publishing of this article, it is unclear which party leaked the email.