The News Press, TC Palm Editorial
October 27, 2017
It happens every year as Florida’s legislative session approaches: Bills are filed in Tallahassee that would erode public access to government meetings and records.
So it may be with Senate Bill 560, filed by Florida Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. The bill seeks to expand an exemption used routinely by city, county and state boards, commissions and councils: The right to meet behind closed doors in executive session.
Florida Statute 286.011(8) stipulates “any board or commission … of any county, municipal corporation or political subdivision … may meet in private with the entity’s attorney to discuss pending litigation to which the entity is presently a party before a court or administrative agency …”
This is a legitimate exemption when used properly. If a commission or council is a party to litigation, it should be allowed to convene behind closed doors and map out a strategy. To be required to hold such meetings in public would give the government entity’s legal opponent an unfair advantage.
It’s important to note that this exemption is triggered by actual litigation — “pending litigation to which the entity is presently a party,” as current law states.
Even as the law is written, it’s problematic.
“This is the most abused exemption we have,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. “You get the city council or county commission behind closed doors and they’ll talk about anything.”
Expanding the law, as SB 560 proposes, would be even riskier. It would allow a government entity to meet in executive session to discuss “imminent or pending litigation to which the entity is or may in the foreseeable future be a party …”
The phrase “may in the foreseeable future” leaves too much wiggle room.
Again, Petersen waves the caution flag.
“I want to know what they mean by ‘imminent’ litigation,” she said. “And what do they mean by ‘foreseeable future’? Does it allow them to meet in secret because of the possibility of a lawsuit?”
Petersen said it’s possible there are enough safety measures in Steube’s bill to make it acceptable. These include a provision requiring the transcript from a private government meeting “to be made part of the public record within a reasonable time” if imminent litigation does not commence.
But she is quick to add: “We already are having problems getting access to transcripts when a settlement has been approved by the courts. It’s concerning when an exemption that is being abused might be expanded.” [READ MORE]