By DOTTY NIST
Florida’s Sunshine Law has been in existence “as we know it” since 1967, according to Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. The Sunshine Law provides the public with right of access to government meetings and reasonable notice of these meetings.
Petersen presented a “Sunshine Seminar” hosted by the Walton County Taxpayers Assocation (WCTA) on June 5 at the Northwest Florida State College facility in Santa Rosa Beach. She explained that her small organization functions as an advocate for the public’s right to oversee government.
Approximately two dozen citizens, including a number of candidates for local government offices, participated. One Walton County commissioner, Cecilia Jones, was present for part of the seminar. Members of the local media were in attendance, as well.
Petersen’s presentation dealt not only with the public’s right of access to government meetings but with right of access to public records.
She began with the disclaimer that only a court is able to make the determination whether a violation of the Sunshine Law has occurred.
All meetings of state agencies, local governments, and special districts at which official acts are taken or public business in conducted, Petersen said, are required to be open to the public and publicly noticed. The Sunshine Law also requires these entities to take minutes of their meetings, she explained.
What is considered a meeting? According to the Sunshine Law, this is any gathering, formal or informal, of two or more members of the same board or commission with discussion of any issue on which “foreseeable action” will be taken by that board or commission. Petersen said the fact that discussions take place by phone or computer does not exclude them from being considered meetings under these circumstances.
Members of the same board or commission “should not be emailing each other, they should not be texting each other” on matters related to the public business of the board or commission, Petersen emphasized. The prohibition also applies to communication via Facebook and Internet message boards, she said.
Meetings of task forces and advisory committees appointed by state agencies and local governments are also subject to open government requirements, she noted, as are private companies doing business on behalf of a government or government agency, and one or more individuals acting on behalf of the government or government agency.
She referenced a recent editorial questioning whether the Sunshine Law would have applied to a meeting between a Walton County commissioner, a county administrator, a county human resources director, and a county attorney to negotiate a severance package for the county administrator. The meeting had not been announced to the public. The editorial had appeared in the DeFuniak Herald/Breeze.
It was Petersen’s opinion that the Sunshine Law would “most likely” have applied to the meeting, even though one commissioner was present. She added that, even if no commissioner had been present and the county attorney or another person had been empowered to act on behalf of the commission, the meeting would still have been subject to the open meetings requirements.
There is no exception to open meeting requirements for discussions on hiring or firing of employees or employment negotiations, Petersen stated.
South Walton County resident Mary Nielson described the series of meetings held at South Walton High School between residents and wedding industry representatives, which had resulted in a set of recommendations to county commissioners for short-term rental accommodations within residential areas. The meetings had been facilitated by the chamber of commerce director at the direction of the county commission. The press had not been allowed to attend. It was Petersen’s opinion that these meetings would have been subject to Sunshine Law requirements and that members of the press should not have been turned away.
As exceptions to meetings to which the Sunshine Law would apply Petersen listed social events, fact-finding gatherings, and other gatherings subject to a specific statutory exemption, for example those involving pending litigation.
Petersen said facilities at which meetings are held must be sufficient in size to accommodate people who are interested in attending….
Read the full story in the June 14, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.