Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Politics

'The public won' — Florida House rejects letting local officials meet secretly

TALLAHASSEE — In a surprise result that's unprecedented in the past 15 years, lawmakers on Tuesday rejected an attempt to significantly scale back part of the state's famed Sunshine Law that secures Floridians' right to watch how local officials make decisions on their behalf.

HB 843 would have let two local government leaders meet about public business in secret. It earned a majority of votes in the state House on Tuesday but still lacked several more needed for it to pass — thanks to a constitutional provision that requires approval by two-thirds of lawmakers to okay any new Sunshine exemptions.

The vote was the first time since voters approved that two-thirds requirement in 2002 that lawmakers have killed a proposed exemption, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for open government and of which the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald are members.

Most exemptions pass both chambers easily, frequently with unanimous support or with heavily lopsided votes in favor.

"It's a huge relief," Petersen said. "It really would have reversed 50 years of public policy."

The bill needed either 78 or 80 votes in order to pass the chamber; Florida courts haven't interpreted whether the two-thirds requirement refers to all 120 members or only those present during a vote, which in this case was 116.

The final tally, nonetheless, fell far short: 68-48, with a mix of Republicans and Democrats on either side.

"This is a tremendous victory for the public," said Rep. Joseph Geller, an Aventura Democrat who is frequently outspoken against exemptions to the Sunshine Law. "Not every day we're up here is it the public that wins, but on this occasion, the public won."

Supporters of the bill, including sponsor and Naples Republican Rep. Byron Donalds, argued the Sunshine Law is unfairly restrictive on local officials and thwarts "efficiency."

"With this provision that members cannot talk at all, it treats every local official like they're a bad actor," Donalds said prior to the vote.

In explaining why he proposed the bill, Donalds last week told the Times/Herald: "This is where we have to be adults about this. Not every conversation is ready for public consumption."

During floor debate, several House members said the proposed carve-out would "clearly undermine" the public's right to observe meetings of their elected officials and weigh in on their decisions.

"It's so easy for deals to be made if we're not in the Sunshine," St. Johns Republican Rep. Cyndi Stevenson said. "By allowing two people to speak and members to meet without notice, it would make it more difficult to detect. I think the people deserve to hear our deliberations."

Rep. Kristin Jacobs — a Democrat from Coconut Creek and former Broward County commissioner of 16 years — said local officials should debate openly "with the idea that the public's input matters and has the ability to change or alter the outcome of any item on their agenda."

Donalds and other supporters argued lawmakers are "hypocritical" for holding local elected officials to a higher standard than the Legislature, which is another reason they said Donalds' bill should be enacted.

The Constitution allows two lawmakers to meet privately and talk about pending policy. But meetings among more than two lawmakers — or any meetings between the governor, the Senate president or the House speaker — need to be open to the public, with notice provided in advance if they're deciding on legislation.

"If we had to observe the same Sunshine laws as we impose on our local [officials], we would be bogged down for a long, long time in session," said Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, R-The Villages, saying the standard is "an extreme impediment to progress."

The proposed law from Donalds — whose wife, Erika, is a Collier County School Board member — would have exempted 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 have applied to boards or commissions with at least five members, but any two officials who talked privately would still have been barred from making formal decisions, pledging votes or discussing public spending or contracts.

After the vote, Speaker Pro Tempore Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, mistakenly said the bill passed, but then corrected the record a minute later.

Three Democrats — all from South Florida — who voted "yes" switched their votes afterward. But the official vote tally will still count Robert Asencio from Miami, Evan Jenne from Dania Beach and Jared Moskowitz from Coral Springs as having voted in favor.

Prior to the 2002 constitutional amendment, only a simple majority was required to pass Sunshine Law exemptions. The legislative proposal to put that on the ballot was sponsored by former Palm Harbor Rep. John Carassas, who is now a circuit court judge for Pinellas and Pasco counties, and Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, who is the current Appropriations chairman.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark

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