When Florida’s Government-in-the Sunshine and Public Records Laws were initiated, communications were largely limited to written words on paper documents, face-to-face discussions and conversations on hard-wired telephones.
Those means of communicating still exist, of course, and can lead to lawsuits and disagreements over application of Florida’s laws on open meetings and records.
But the addition of new tools — cellphones and computers — and the creation of new formats for communicating — emailing from business and personal accounts, texting, participating in social media and video conferencing via an people can run afoul of the laws.
Florida’s initial Public Records Law was enacted in 1909 (no, that year is not a typo) and provided basic access to public documents and the like; it was subsequently expanded, then strengthened when voters in 1992 approved a constitutional amendment that broadened and improved access to government. The provisions for accessing records are found in Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes.
The Government-in-the-Sunshine law, adopted in Chapter 286 in 1967, gives citizens the right of access to a wide range of governmental proceedings at the state and local levels. The Sunshine Law requires that: meetings of boards or commissions must be open to the public; reasonable notice of such meetings must be given, and minutes of the meetings must be taken.
As some high-profile Sunshine Law and open-records disputes in our region have shown, determining compliance with the statutes can sometimes be difficult and subject to complex litigation.
Education, awareness and an unwavering commitment to erring on the side of caution can help Floridians subject to the laws avoid breaking them — and, just as important, uphold both the letter and spirit of the statutes.
The Florida Attorney General’s office offers a solid place to start for those seeking to understand the principles and even the nuances of the laws. Online, for example, visit myflsunshine.com, which provides answers to frequently asked questions and includes the handy Sunshine Manual.
These online resources are helpful to those who use them and carefully adhere to the laws. Sometimes, though, nothing beats old-fashioned lessons delivered by experts, followed by time for questions and answers.
To that end, the Sarasota County Bar Association — with support from the Icard Merrill and Williams Parker law firms — is sponsoring an information session about the laws.
On Oct. 17 in Sarasota, Pat Gleason — special counsel for open government in the state attorney general’s office — will lead a discussion about the laws.
According to the local Bar Association, Gleason will “present a practical, real world scenario information session designed for those who serve on local government boards or advisory boards, those who represent them, and individuals interested in today’s intricacies of open meetings and public records laws.” (We would add that people who are even thinking about serving on one of these boards — or in any type of group with interactions with local government — should consider attending.)
There have always been disputes over the value, application and enforcement of the open-meetings and records laws. However, the intensity of open-government lawsuits in our region and the rapid expansion of communications methods and devices have made compliance more challenging.
The case for participating in these educational sessions has long been strong, but now it is even stronger.