Way to Go Voters!

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Voters of Fort Myers Beach – Our hats are off to you! A whopping 57.7% of registered Island voters voted this week, and not just for the two council seats on the ballot, but the 21 Charter referendum questions as well. It looks like only a couple hundred voters out of nearly 2900 opted to skip the lengthy referendum section. That has to be some sort of a record.

The approval of 18 out of 21 proposed Town Charter changes is a sign that the document was more than ready for updating. Islanders owe a debt of gratitude to both the Charter Review Committee members (Tom Babcock, Miffie Greer, Dan Hughes, Jay Light and Dan Parker) and the Town Council for their efforts to review the Town Charter and put these questions before voters. To their credit, Council did not wrestle with the questions very long, they just opted to let voters decide…and they did.

Congratulations to the election winners – Tracey Gore and Dennis Boback – who will officially become Town Council members next Monday evening. We wish them an effective and satisfying term as they begin their service to the Town of Fort Myers Beach and its residents.

We also thank Alan Mandel and Dan Andre who will leave Town Council on Monday evening. Thank you for your service, your dedication, your time and your devotion to serving our community!

Government in the Sunshine

It’s timely that we celebrate Sunshine Week this week! This annual effort to emphasize the importance of open government and open records highlights the fact that all the workings of government – the meetings, phone calls, texts, videos, emails – are accessible to every citizen. Begun in 2002 by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, the effort blossomed into a nationwide event in 2005. It’s fitting that it all began here in Florida, a state widely recognized as a pioneer of government transparency, with our first public records law passing in 1909.

Sunshine laws apply to members of any board or council, whether elected or appointed. They apply to members-elect immediately upon their election to office.

Unfortunately there have been efforts for years by state legislators to blunt the force of those laws by adding exemptions.

Some exemptions make sense. But in this era of privacy concerns and identity theft, everyone would like to remain under the radar. But when you work for the government, doing the people’s work, that’s not possible in most cases. We are an open government state. Or at least we have been. There are now 1106 exemptions to Florida’s open government laws already on the books. And more are proposed each year – 74 this year alone.

Locally, we haven’t found any major problems. Our requests for public records are usually fulfilled quickly at minimal cost. As for open meetings, as a small community, our elected and appointed boards face challenges that members of statewide boards don’t. They see and interact with other board members on an almost daily basis.

And that is where the potential for Sunshine violations lies. It takes great restraint to not discuss a hot topic that everyone in town is discussing with your friend who also serves on the same board with you.

As a small proud community, we’ve sensed from some that those Sunshine laws are for big communities or the feds or the state. We’re a small town and we all know each other, so all that Sunshine stuff doesn’t apply to us. Right?

But it does. We can’t count how many times our staff has heard board or council members discuss board/council business before or after a meeting. Or heard that 2-3 board members had back and forth email exchanges on topics that board will discuss – all way outside the sunshine and against the law.

Sunshine Laws do not prohibit anyone from continuing relationships with friends who happen to sit on a board with them. Go out and have lunch. Have a beer together. Discuss your grandkids. Talk about the state of the world, so long as it’s not a topic that will come before the board you both sit on. That is illegal, whether you’re on a council or board in Orlando, Tallahassee or Fort Myers Beach.

On our Island, citizens are served by the Town Council, Town Advisory committees, the Library Board, Mosquito Control Board and Fire Board. Every member of those boards is bound by the Sunshine Law.

That means that if a board member uses their personal email to discuss board business, that email account is subject to a public records search. Same with texts and phone calls. And anyone can request those records.

The citizens that our council and boards serve deserve to know what is being discussed and who is saying what. If all discussions are held in recorded meetings, open to the public, then citizens have easy access to that information. A conversation between board members about the relative merits of a variance request or hearing topic held outside of the meeting is, in essence, a secret meeting. Not only does it not serve citizens, it’s illegal and possible consequences include fines, jail time and removal from office. That’s how seriously state law views transparency.

When elected or appointed to any government board or committee, members are informed of the Sunshine Law. Anyone uncomfortable with the restrictions of the law should not sit on a public board.

Open Meetings and Open Records-they’re good for all of us!

Missy Layfield