May 2, 2017
Florida’s voters in 2002 may not have anticipated what would happen 15 years later, but they did future generations a favor by amending the state constitution to make it harder for the Legislature to create exemptions to the Sunshine Law.
In a 2002 referendum, 76 percent of voters endorsed Amendment 4, which requires the approval of at least two-thirds of representatives and senators before exempting records or meetings from Florida’s open-government laws. The existence of that higher standard for protecting those laws, the basis of which are also enshrined in the constitution, prevented the state House from passing CS/HB 843 and sending it to the Senate.
In roll-call vote largely along partisan lines, the House supported the bill 68-48, but the measure fell short of the two-thirds requirement. Unfortunately, all of the Republican representatives from the Manatee-Sarasota region voted in favor — except Joe Gruters of Sarasota, who deserves credit for breaking from the pack.
The bill would have eclipsed the Sunshine Law, which requires the leaders of most government bodies and their appointees to conduct public business in public, not in private.
According to the consensus understanding of the law, which has been in effect since 1967, members of city councils, county commissions and certain other boards (including the governor and Cabinet) aren’t allowed to discuss public business among themselves in private. The state attorney general’s longstanding assessment makes that clear: “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.”
Yet CS/HB 843, filed by Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican from Naples, sought to radically change the law and diminish its value. The bill stated, in part, that “two members of any board or commission … may meet in private and discuss public business without providing notice of such meeting or recording such meeting …”
There were some safeguards in the bill, but it contained no requirements for officials to provide notice, recordings or reporting concerning such meetings. As a result, Floridians would have had no way of knowing what was discussed in private.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s support for the bill makes his call for greater transparency at state agencies, such as Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, ring hollow — as does the Legislature’s continued exemption of its high-level budget negotiations and other key meetings from the Sunshine Law. Perhaps it’s time for an amendment to ensure the Legislature’s compliance.
Private discussion of public business is an oxymoron. We’re thankful that more than three-quarters of voters in 2002 raised the bar for exemptions, and that this lousy bill failed as a result. [READ MORE]