The Florida Constitution and the state’s famed Sunshine Law give residents the right to know about and observe meetings held by the elected officials who represent them and make decisions on their behalf.
But a bill going to the state House floor on Friday would effectively thwart significant aspects of that constitutional guarantee and potentially render it meaningless by allowing local elected officials — from city and county commissioners to school board members — to meet behind closed doors and discuss public matters in secret.
The proposed law (HB 843) from Naples Republican Rep. Byron Donalds would exempt from open meetings requirements any gatherings between two members of a local, county or state agency board or commission. Those officials wouldn’t have to give any notice about their meeting and they wouldn’t have to keep any records of what they discuss. (The exemption would apply to boards or commissions with at least five members.)
Donalds argues that the Sunshine Law needs to be more practical in letting local elected officials conduct public business.
“If we’re going to be honest with ourselves and have a balance between proper governance and transparency, it is incumbent on local officials to be able to talk with each other so they come up with the best solutions possible,” said Donalds, whose wife, Erika, is an elected school board member in Collier County.
“This is where we have to be adults about this,” Donalds added. “Not every conversation is ready for public consumption.”
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, had vowed to emphasize and improve transparency in government this session, but Donalds’ bill was fast-tracked to the floor after just two committee hearings.
A companion bill in the Senate (SB 1004) from conservative Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, was not heard, so it’s unlikely Donalds’ proposal will become law this year even if it passes the House. A floor vote is expected Monday.
Meanwhile, advocates for open government — including some lawmakers and the First Amendment Foundation — say the proposal “raises serious constitutional questions.” Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1992 that guarantees the public’s right of access to public meetings.
“I understand the Sunshine Law can be inconvenient. It can be uncomfortable,” Aventura Democratic Rep. Joseph Geller said. “Inconvenient and uncomfortable is not a substitute for the public’s right to know the public’s business and how the public’s business is being conducted.”
“Anything that weakens that, in my opinion, is a terrible mistake and a tremendous disservice to the state of Florida,” said Geller, who is a former mayor of North Bay Village in Miami-Dade County.
First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen wrote to Donalds that his proposal “precludes any meaningful opportunity for public oversight and accountability” and “invites pernicious mischief by our elected officials.” (The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are foundation members.)
“The right of Floridians to oversee their government and hold it accountable for its actions — a right imbedded in our constitution — far outweighs such minor annoyances” as “inconvenience,” Petersen wrote.
Donalds said there are still limits on his bill. The two elected officials meeting privately would be barred from making formal decisions or pledging future votes, and they could not discuss any public spending or contracts.
“Those are deliberations that should happen in front of the public at all times,” Donalds said, but he said on policy matters, “it’s probably a good thing” for two elected officials to talk privately “and clear up a lot of the misconceptions before you have the real debate” in a public meeting.
Several local elected officials in South Florida said they don’t see a clear need for the change in Sunshine Law.
“I’ve found it sufficient for us to conduct the business we need and to maximize transparency for the public,” Miami Commissioner Ken Russell said.
North Miami Councilman Scott Galvin said the bill could set a bad precedent for local elected officials. “It obviously defeats the entire purpose of government in the Sunshine,” Galvin said. “I’m stunned that somebody would propose that.”
Other local elected officials say Donalds’ bill is a good idea.
Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy, newly elected in November, said he is “in strong favor of amending the law,” because restrictions on public meetings “cause major dysfunction.”
“Cities can’t move forward when their elected officials are forced into a locked-up silo, without the ability to speak with one another on a regular basis,” he said. “Members of the Florida Legislature and the federal government are permitted to speak with one another and local elected officials need to be able to do the same.”
In Miami Beach, Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said she likes the idea because she feels lobbyists, who are paid to speak to several elected officials on any one topic, are able to weave their own narratives in public meetings when commissioners are debating issues for the first time.
She feels elected officials should be able to brainstorm with each other without calling public meetings, particularly on heavily lobbied issues. “Sometimes you need input from our colleagues without making a public decision,” she said.
Rosen Gonzalez also pointed to the difficulty of speaking at community meetings where more than one elected official attends.
“It’s stupid that if [Commissioner] Michael Grieco and I are at a meeting with residents, if I say something, then he can’t open his mouth,” she said.
Miami Herald staff writers Amy Sherman, Lance Dixon, Joey Flechas and David Smiley contributed.