Daily Commercial by Carlos Medina
December 17, 2017
Lake County School’s attorney assured the School Board last week that the current practice of holding private meetings between individual board members and the district’s superintendent and staff were, in his opinion, legal and above board.
Others, however, aren’t so sure, citing a long-held court ruling against similar meetings.
Florida’s Open Meetings laws prohibit two or more members of elected boards from meeting privately to discuss official business to keep elected officials from making important decisions outside the view of the public.
But in recent months, individual School Board members have been meeting with top district staff days before regularly scheduled public meetings to go over the meeting agendas and to give each a chance to ask questions about the issues that are coming up.
Days after one of these closed-door meetings, the School Board accepted a report with little or no discussion that showed the district had been engaged in the questionable practice of holding back on repairs and renovations of buildings to pay for operating costs under the past administration.
Yet in October, board member Sandy Gamble praised Superintendent Diane Kornegay for holding these private meetings with individual board members.
“One thing I like about it is when I first came on we didn’t have meetings before the Monday night board meeting and so we caught our directors or supervisors like deer in the headlights when we would have questions. But the superintendent established meetings prior to our board meetings which allowed us to present questions or things of concern and we can get these worked out and I appreciate that because it does clear a lot,” Gamble said.
Marc Dodd, then chairman of the board, took it further.
“Those meetings that we have the opportunity to attend individually with you and your staff, I think are going to be really helpful coming forward because we have a couple of big topics that we are going to see hit our discussion agenda soon. One of those being legislative priorities and also the superintendent’s evaluation. Rather than call everybody in on a separate workshop on just two topics, we put those on discussion and talk it out (in the public meeting). We do our homework ahead of time and that will certainly make that discussion go much smoother,” Dodd said.
Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, said that smoothness is the problem.
“That practice is questionable at best. Those discussions give us an insight into the entire deliberative process. How a decision is made and why it’s made is just as important as the decision itself,” said Peterson, the long-time president of the organization that formed to protect and advance the public’s constitutional right to open government.
To conduct the discussions in private, whether to avoid embarrassment or to make the process move quicker, circumvents the purpose of the Sunshine Law, which is to keep government actions and decision-making open to the public.
“The public is supposed to be a part of that deliberative process,” she said. “On any issue coming before the board, how can we talk intelligently if we don’t know what they are being told behind closed doors?”
The Sunshine Law is to be construed “to frustrate all evasive devices,” according to several opinions by the Florida Office of the Attorney General.
. . .
“Our Sunshine Law is meant to allow access by the public to the entire deliberative process. When much of the discussion of agenda items happens behind closed doors, they’re thwarting the purpose and intent of the law. Of course, it’s more efficient to have private discussions of public business, but who said that a democracy is efficient?” Petersen said. [READ MORE]