TC Palm by Lucas Daprille
November 14, 2017
The South Florida Water Management District has changed an advisory commission to an “analysis coalition” so it doesn’t have to follow the state’s Sunshine Law.
The district rewrote the Water Resources Advisory Commission’s charter — and renamed it the Water Resources Analysis Coalition — to change it from a body that issues formal recommendations to one engaged in “fact-finding” during a Nov. 9 governing board meeting.
“The changes appear to be an intentional attempt to avoid the public meeting requirements of state law, which significantly erodes any remaining credibility,” said Lisa Interlandi, a senior attorney at the Everglades Law Center. “At this point, this entity is operating at public expense with very little discernible benefit.”
Critics point out there was no public discussion or notification of the district’s intent to rewrite the committee’s charter before the governing board meeting, even though the committee itself met just a week before. The governing board meeting agenda included no description of the proposed changes. Rather, the item was buried at the bottom and said only “WRAC Matters,” using an acronym for the committee.
. . . Earlier this year, Pipes and commission members Newton Earl Cook and Mikhael Elfenbein, who also goes by Mike Elf, discussed official business on Facebook, an apparent violation of sunshine laws. The posts were later deleted.
The district later warned commission members not to talk about issues that could come before the panel on social media.
A day after the committee was exempted from sunshine laws, water district board member Melanie Peterson encouraged the conversation to resume.
Peterson commented on an article Pipes’ shared on Facebook, saying: “You are no longer unable to communicate with the likes of Newton Earl Cook and Mike Elf… so let the commentary commence!”
The reformed coalition, made up of environmentalists, agriculture interests and local government representatives, will maintain its current membership.
Florida sunshine laws require entities that provide recommendations to voting bodies to discuss official business only in public meetings. Fact-finding entities are exempt from that portion of the laws.
First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said she doesn’t have a problem with the district’s decision to change the committee from an advisory one to a fact-finding one, so long as the fact-finding committee doesn’t issue recommendations.
“It doesn’t matter what they call it,” Petersen said. “It matters what they do.” [READ MORE]