IT’S YOUR GOVERNMENT! Florida is known as The Sunshine State for several reasons. One reason is because there is a Constitutional provision and corresponding statutes which require government records to be public (unless exempted by statute) and most meetings among certain elected officials are to be public as well. When you attend city or county commission meetings, they are on the record because Sunshine is required by State law.
BUT, according to Attorney General’s opinions, meetings in the Sunshine only cover boards and commissions. Constitutional officers are NOT included. The legislature is not included. Even the Governor and Cabinet members are not required to include public comments during Cabinet meetings unless they are meeting as a board or commission.
That means if a private citizen wants to speak to the Governor or a Cabinet member on the record, he/she has to be introduced by an agency head or employee. If they do not want you to speak or do not approve of what you have to say, you might not be able to address those elected officials unless you can get an appointment with each of them individually. If you cannot get such an appointment, your elected executive officers will never hear what is important to you or significant to the management of the State.
The problem is that everyone who is not a member of a board or commission is not covered by Sunshine requirements. That means those constitutional officers (property appraisers, clerks of the court, tax collectors, and the others) can and do meet, off the record, often using public resources, to discuss matters of public policy including litigation and lobbying – often against the interests of taxpayers. It also means State and local officials can avoid private citizen knowledge of subjects they may not want to address, particularly in public.
Off the record meetings even may include appearances by agency staff who are intended to regulate the offices of those officials. And in many instances there are no records of what transpires at those meetings.
For example, one group of Constitutional officers, represented by and accompanied by their attorney, met with a State agency, allegedly yelled at that agency for responding to requests from a State legislator, BUT the State agency head and staff did NOT take notes, did NOT have a record made of the meeting, and did NOT have their attorney present – even though those Constitutional officers, through their non-profit, are suing the very same State agency and the litigation is related, in part, to the subject of the meeting.
So, you may ask, where is the oversight? Where is the transparency? And, where is the accountability? After all Government In The Sunshine is your right! Turns out rights require diligence.
We think THE TEST should NOT be whether a board or commission is meeting. The test should be whether public policy is being discussed AND if public resources are being used for any meetings between two or more members of state or local government because those dozens of non-profits which are not audited by the State also are not complying with Sunshine. In fact, it looks as if avoiding compliance is related to forming those non-profits which conveniently are not audited by the State. Or, where any State audits may occur, they do not cover all of the functions of an office, and therefore may miss, through omissions, the very conduct that’s not appropriate use of public resources.
SO, Floridians need to demand their rights. On line, go to www.leg.state.fl.us to find your elected representatives. AND, for the Committees responsible specifically for Sunshine matters, go to Government Oversight and Accountability in the Florida Senate, and in the House, try the Government Operations Subcommittee.
Ask your elected representatives in the Legislature to sponsor legislation that requires any elected or appointed members of government to comply with The Sunshine law whenever any public policy is discussed between two or more public officials and whenever any public resources are being used.