Monday, January 22, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Florida House should not shred open meetings law

For decades, Florida has been a national leader in requiring the public's business to be conducted in the sunshine. Today, the Florida House is poised to return the state to the dark ages with legislation that would allow two members of the same government board or commission to discuss government issues in secret. This is an egregious assault on one of the most precious protections Floridians have to ensure public officials are held accountable, and it cannot be tolerated.

Florida's "Government-in-the-Sunshine Law" requires all city councils, school boards, county commissions and other government boards to meet in public, provide advance public notice of those meetings and keep records of what happens. The Florida Supreme Court reasonably defined meetings as two or more members of the same panel, and that has been the standard for nearly 50 years. Voters even added protections for open meetings to the Florida Constitution in 1992.

Yet today, the House will consider legislation that would eviscerate those protections. The bill, HB 843, would allow two members of the same board to discuss public business in private. No public notice. No minutes of what was said. The public may never know what their public officials discussed, and the public meetings of city councils, county commissions and other boards would become charades.

In other eras, such a blatant attack on open government would not have seen the light of day even in the Florida Legislature. The bill's sponsor is a freshman lawmaker, Republican Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples. His wife, Erika, is a member of the Collier County School Board. Erika Donalds was recently appointed to the Constitution Revision Commission by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. It's not hard to connect the dots and recognize why this horrible legislation is coming before the full House just a week before the end of the legislative session. Corcoran should be held just as accountable as the bill's sponsor for this attack on the public's right to watch what public officials are doing on their behalf.

This legislative session has been one of the worst for open government. A bill already has been sent to Gov. Rick Scott that would require the identity of witnesses to murders to be kept secret for two years, which would make it harder for the public to hold police and prosecutors accountable. The House passed another bill this week to keep secret the names of applicants to become college and university presidents in a misguided notion that secrecy would produce better candidates. But this obliteration of the public meeting requirements tops them all.

The bill soft-pedals the damage by saying two board members meeting in secret could not take formal action or agree to do so at a future public meeting. Good luck enforcing that. The reality is two members privately could discuss an issue, then meet secretly with other members and predetermine the outcome of any public vote. The bill also says two members could not secretly discuss public money or a contract tied to a private business. Good luck enforcing that. The reality is secret meetings invite corruption and payoffs. And it is no comfort that two city council members could not privately discuss a contract with a construction company but could discuss in secret whether to rezone a neighborhood or award pay raises or hire more police officers.

Every legislator who supports this bill will be casting a vote against government-in-the-sunshine. They will be eroding the rights of Floridians to watch their elected officials conduct the public's business and to hold them accountable for their actions. Those who care about open government and democracy should not let them get way with it.

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