Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was enacted in 1967 to provide the public with the right of access to government proceedings, allowing residents to know how government at all levels is spending taxpayer dollars and what decisions those governing bodies are making.
The Sunshine Law also benefits those governing bodies by helping maintain transparency and fostering a relationship with the people they serve.
However, the sunshine law seems to have become a bit cloudy for some local boards.
The Washington County News and Holmes County Times-Advertiser recently reported that the Town of Caryville had violated the Sunshine Law first by a council member’s arbitrary decision to enter into a contract to have tree debris removed without benefit of a public vote – and then by failing to give proper notice of a called meeting.
In all fairness, the council was likely not deliberately attempting to hide their actions from the public eye. However, as a steward of the people, all officials should make understanding the Sunshine Law a priority, as they immediately become subject to abide by the law upon their election to office.
We can all use this misstep as a learning opportunity to have a an open conversation about the importance of the Sunshine Laws, specifically the portion which deals with open meetings, both to the public and those elected or appointed to serve them.
While the wording of the Sunshine Law can seem complex to most, it has three clear, vital cornerstones.
First, all public meetings, boards, or commissions must be open to the public. Some exceptions – such as pending litigation or land acquisition – do apply. However, the public and the newspaper of record must be notified of all closed sessions. Second, reasonable notice of those meetings should be given. While the law itself does not define what is considered reasonable notice, Florida courts have determined that reasonable notice is no less than 24 hours. Third, a written record of those meetings must be taken and made available to the public.
Violations of the opening meetings law are considered a second-degree misdemeanor and can result in a $500 fine for the each individual taking part in the violation. Furthermore, if an official action was taken during the course of the violation, a court can overturn the governing body’s action.
When entities hide things – regardless if it’s unintentional – from public view, it does nothing but arouse suspicions. Follow the law and do it publicly.
Officials should also understand media outlets are simply upholding their duty to the public to ensure transparency is upheld. In fact, our local governments should think of the local newspaper as a partner in transparency.
When the paper of record speaks up to stop what we believe to be a Sunshine Law violation from taking place, it’s to hold – not slap – the hands of local officials in the quest to maintain an open government system.
We must all work together to ensure the public’s business remains in the public eye.
Here’s a few FAQs regarding Florida’s Sunshine Law:
What qualifies as a meeting?
The Sunshine law applies to all discussions or deliberations as well as the formal action taken by a board or commission. The law, in essence, is applicable to any gathering, whether formal or casual, of two or more members of the same board or commission to discuss some matter on which foreseeable action will be taken by the public board or commission. There is no requirement that a quorum be present for a meeting to be covered under the law.
Can two members of a public board attend social functions together?
Members of a public board are not prohibited under the Sunshine law from meeting together socially, provided that matters which may come before the board are not discussed at such gatherings.
Can a public agency hold closed meetings?
There are a limited number of exemptions which would allow a public agency to close a meeting. These include, but are not limited to, certain discussions with the board’s attorney over pending litigation and portions of collective bargaining sessions. In addition, specific portions of meetings of some agencies (usually state agencies) may be closed when those agencies are making probable cause determinations or considering confidential records.
Does the law require that a public meeting be audio taped?
There is no requirement under the Sunshine law that tape recordings be made by a public board or commission, but if they are made, they become public records.
Can a board vote by secret ballot?
The Sunshine law requires that meetings of public boards or commissions be “open to the public at all times.” Thus, use of preassigned numbers, codes or secret ballots would violate the law.
Original article here.