Tallahassee Democrat Editorial
May 3, 2017
First, the bad news: Most members of the Florida House think they should be able to skulk around in secret and discuss the public’s business without the taxpayers having any idea what they’re doing.
Now, the good news: The majority does not always rule. Although the House voted 68-48 for a bill (HB 843) that would let two members of a governing body discuss public business without giving any official notice, or keeping minutes of their meeting, that wasn’t enough to get the measure over to the Senate.
Fortunately, the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote for bills adding exemptions to Florida’s public-records law, so the proposal by Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, fell about a dozen short of the mark. But we can be sure it will be back next year.
Why? Are city and county commissioners, legislators and members of other government authorities having a hard time making decisions because they have to conduct the public’s business in public?
No. It’s just that a lot of them don’t want to. We understand. It’s inconvenient for busy decision-makers to give notice of a meeting, keep minutes and admit spectators.
But sometimes efficiency has to be sacrificed, just a little, to protect the public’s right to know.
Rep. Donalds’ bill, and its still-alive Senate companion by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, had some safety carve-outs. Two members of a board with five or more members could not make a decision, or line up their votes, or set an appropriation in an unannounced, private meeting — and they couldn’t huddle privately with the intention of thwarting the “Government in the Sunshine” law.
But we’d have to take their word for it. Many fine public servants would never think of secretly conniving to pass an ordinance or spend some tax money, then meet publicly to rubber stamp what they’ve already decided to do.
And some commissioners, senators or representatives would do precisely that — maybe not every day, but whenever meeting in public became a little awkward. If they wanted to really let their hair down, cut loose, say something they’d never want the voters to hear, it would be tempting and easy to pull a fellow member into a private meeting and speak bluntly.
Sorry, senators, representatives, city or county commissioners, and members of other official bodies. If you can’t say it or do it with the public watching, maybe you should think again about what you’re up to.
Please notice that we’re not talking about freedom of the press here. It’s true that we in the news media make the most frequent use of open-meeting and public-records laws, and we’re the first and loudest to holler when members evade the Sunshine Law, legally or otherwise.
But Donalds’ little four-page bill does not contain the words “reporter,” or “media,” or “press.” It contains the word “public.” That’s whom it would have shut out, the Florida public — you.
Maybe you have neither the need nor desire to go down to City Hall, the County Commission or Capitol to watch government at work. That’s not important. But having the right to do so is important.
Baxley and Donalds probably meant no harm. Maybe a mayor or some commissioners back home asked them to put a little shade in the Sunshine Law, with no ill intent, so they could discuss official business in a chance meeting in an elevator or a casual drop-by visit to a member’s office.
But Florida’s open-meeting laws work well. There’s no need to fix them. [READ MORE]