We cover the meetings of a number of elected and appointed boards for our readers. Every single member of each board would likely say that they have been informed of the Florida laws dealing with open meetings and public records — the Sunshine Laws.
The purpose of those laws is to allow Florida citizens to watch what their government is doing. The public has the right to know everything their government does and where every dollar goes. It’s their government.
Board members say they absolutely believe in the public’s right to know. But may not quite understand what that means. How can board members be expected to know how the Sunshine Law applies to them without adequate training?
Most, but not all, newly elected board members receive at least a cursory tutorial on Florida Sunshine laws. When you’re new, there’s a whole lot of stuff to learn and not a lot of time to get up to speed. Some boards have their Board Attorney provide Sunshine training and other board members brush it off, sure that they already know it all. Rarely is a full course in Sunshine law offered to new board members. And it should be offered to both new and current board members because the law changes a bit each year. In fact the state requires annual training.
As of January 1, 2015, Florida state law (F.S.112.3142) demands that all elected municipal officers complete 4 hours of ethics training each year that includes Sunshine Law, the Code of Ethics for Public Officers and the State Constitution.
With our Town’s changing council members, Town Attorneys and Town Managers in the past year or so, a valid question would be, has anyone on Town Council completed the required 4 hours of ethics training in the past year?
On April 4th, our Town Council received a 20-minute presentation by the Town Attorney on “Florida Sunshine Law & Ethics Review.” Surely those 20 minutes could not possibly have provided council members the same in-depth information that the state says needs four hours of attention.
Too many board members learn the hard way what falls under the Sunshine. For them it all becomes real when they learn that their personal phones and email accounts can be searched for communication related to a board-related topic. And they are often amazed, outraged and offended at that point. So much better to educate first.
Sunshine Law says that any meeting, conversation, text, phone call or any other form of communication between two or more board members about a topic that will foreseeably come before that board for action must be held in public at a noticed meeting.
So if board member A runs into board member B in a store and they discuss the burned out streetlights on their block, that’s a violation of Sunshine if there’s any chance that streetlights are going to be on a board agenda.
Some board members worry excessively about whether they’re violating Sunshine Law. Others don’t think it applies to them, or worse, think that they are the arbiters of whether it applies to them.
How about board member X texting board member Z to ask a question about a topic on next week’s agenda? Wrong.
Most elected board members are provided an “official” email address for official business. But we all are rushed and sometimes it’s easier to use the email address we’re more familiar with and the whole exchange moves off the record and out of the Sunshine.
For this reason, personal phone records, texts and emails can all be part of the pubic record if they contain any communication that the Sunshine laws consider public record.
These Sunshine laws that provide for both open meetings and public record access can be found in Article I, Section 24 of the Florida Constitution and Chapter 119 F.S. and Chapter 286 F.S. They apply to every department, division, board, commission or other unit of government as well as any private person or business acting on behalf of a public agency. Town Council, Fire Board, Library Board, Mosquito Control Board, County Commission, Local Planning Agency, Marine Resources Task Force, Tourist Development Council, etc – every elected or appointed government board falls under Sunshine Law.
Anyone sitting on a public board, volunteer, paid, elected or appointed, would be well advised to seek out quality in-depth education on the Florida Sunshine laws.
The Florida First Amendment Foundation, of which the Island Sand Paper is a member, has devoted over thirty years to supporting Florida Sunshine Law. Each year, they sound the alarm on the frightening number of exemptions proposed in the Florida Legislature. There are already 1,119 exemptions to open government on the books in Florida, effectively dimming that Florida sunshine. There is understandable alarm at the increasing exemptions and an effort is being made to provide effective education on Sunshine Law.
The FAF has created a self-study course on Florida open government laws at Floridafaf.org. Area board members might want to consider taking it or something similar to brush up on their Sunshine knowledge.
Sunshine Law exists to allow everyone to oversee their government. That right to attend meetings and see records is a key piece of oversight we all have over our government.
Let the Sunshine in!