Public officials don’t have to like Florida’s open-government laws. But they do have to respect and obey them.
Unfortunately, in two recent instances local officials treated the state’s Sunshine Law like it was a speed limit.
The Halifax Area Advertising Authority Board was forced to have a do-over on approving a 4 percent pay raise for Executive Director Tom Caradonio. The board OK’d the increase at its Nov. 17 meeting, but the decision was based on an Oct. 21 meeting of its Human Resources Advisory Committee, where board members discussed Caradonio’s job performance. However, the October meeting was never publicly advertised, nor were there minutes taken of it. Those are violations of the Sunshine Law.
That doesn’t mean Caradonio won’t get his raise. It simply means the committee will have to hold a new evaluation meeting that is properly noticed and recorded. It undoubtedly will be pro forma, ensuring only that the appropriate letters are crossed and dotted to comply with the law. But it’s important that the law is followed.
HAAA Board Chairwoman Blaine Lansberry had the right attitude about it. She said that although it was the first time during her tenure that she could recall violating the Sunshine Law, “That doesn’t excuse it. It just means we need to get it fixed.” She said HAAA staff has been reminded of Sunshine law requirements for public meetings. Kudos to her.
Contrast that with Caradonio’s response, which was to grouse that The News-Journal’s coverage of the violation was “ludicrous” and “much ado about nothing.” He said he and his staff weren’t trying to hide anything.
No one has accused them of nefarious motives. But neither does that matter. A violation of the Sunshine Law, even one born of carelessness, is relevant and newsworthy. The statutes protect the public’s right to know how its time and money are being spent, no matter how big or small the expenditure. (And a 4 percent raise for the top person in a public organization is not insignificant.) When the public is denied access and knowledge, it can’t hold officials accountable for their actions.
Government can’t pick and choose which Sunshine Law it considers important and brush off those it considers trivial. Nor should it consider the laws an obstacle, which is what DeBary Mayor Clint Johnson suggested recently.
Johnson has run afoul of the public records laws for setting up a “Mayor’s Mailbox” in a shopping center to accept citizen feedback — and then initially declining to share the results. However, he also scheduled one-on-one meetings with council members that were in the sunshine: They were held in a conference room in City Hall and open to the public.
Johnson recently complained to The News-Journal’s Austin Fuller that the Sunshine Law is “so vague and misinterpreted that it creates problems, it creates division.” He said it prevents council members from working together as a team because “we can’t go out and meet for a dinner once and a while and just hang out and get to know each other on a personal level and have fun.”
Actually, the law is pretty clear; it’s not hard to comply with. It ensures that the public’s business is conducted in the open, not behind closed doors or in a casual setting. Many government bodies function reasonably well within its confines. Most don’t blame public oversight for their shortcomings.
Officials should remember that their chosen field of public service includes a responsibility to obey the laws that protect the public interest.