WEST PALM BEACH — Florida is famous for its sunshine.
But in West Palm Beach, when it came to training city officials in the state’s Government-in-the-Sunshine law on April 24, the session took place out of the sunshine.
The city staff, including Deputy Administrator Dorritt Miller, at least three members of the city attorney’s office, the finance director and ethics officer, conducted a three-hour, closed-door training session for Mayor Jeri Muoio and the city’s five commissioners on the third floor of the library next to City Hall, without notice to the public.
According to commissioners who attended, and a PowerPoint presentation emailed in response to a Palm Beach Post inquiry Friday, the meeting covered not just the Sunshine Law not just the Sunshine Law but a host of Commission 101 issues: the legal powers of the mayor; whether commissioners are allowed to contact city staffers directly; and definitions of such legal terms as an “F” resolution or a “quasi-judicial” hearing. Also on the agenda: legal implications of dealing with the public from the podium, on the phone and in emails, and dealing with the media.
City spokesman Elliot Cohen said Friday that prior to the meeting, the administration checked with the attorney general’s office in Tallahassee and was told that training sessions did not need to be held in public. Pat Gleason, Special Counsel for Open Government in the Office of the Attorney General, who Cohen said gave that opinion, could not be reached for comment Friday.
“It’s a gray area, legally,” Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee nonprofit focused on open government, said Friday.
“But as a policy, particularly when we’re talking about sunshine, I mean, that’s the ironic thing here,” she said. “I would say for good public policy and in the spirit and intent of the law, they should open it up. I think they should open every meeting unless there is a specific exemption.”
Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine law contains open meetings requirements that apply to almost all state and local public bodies with the exception of the courts and the state Legislature, which have their own constitutional provisions. There is no special exemption for training sessions, but there is a conflict between the state constitution and how the courts have interpreted state statutes, Petersen said.
“The constitution says meetings at which public business is to be transacted or discussed must be opened and noticed to the public,” she said. The courts, though, have interpreted that to mean “any discussion by two or more members of the same board or commission in which foreseeable action will be taken,” she said.
Commissioners Paula Ryan and Cory Neering said they found the training meeting innocuous and helpful, as they are newly elected to the five-member commission.
No matters were discussed that commissioners would be voting on, Neering said. “We all knew that.”
“It was more a function of just understanding what our roles and responsibilities are,” Ryan said.
Commissioner Shanon Materio, however, said the meeting should have been open.
“I don’t understand why it couldn’t have been in the sunshine,” she said. “Why not?”
Asked if the public might benefit, city spokesman Cohen agreed. “The topic itself is probably a good primer for the public,” he said. “But when it comes to asking questions, sometimes if you’re an elected official …”
“What’s the harm?” Petersen said. “They should be open even if the law doesn’t require that they be open.”
Original article here.