(January 20, 2017)
Three city governing bodies held a joint workshop Wednesday, January 18, to listen to details about the Sunshine Law, which mandates how city officials conduct public meetings and make public records available to members of the public, in the City Hall Council Chambers.
The City Council, the Community Redevelopment Agency, and the Planning Commission spent about an hour listening to and asking city attorney Cliff Shepard questions about the Sunshine Law.
The Sunshine Law requires government officials to release a public notice about scheduled meetings, that the meetings are held in a public location such as a City Hall, and that minutes are recorded so information is made available to the public. The Sunshine Law regarding open meetings can be found in Chapter 286 of the Florida Statutes.
Decisions can be a part of the meeting, but they don’t have to be in order to have a public meeting, Shepard said. However, if decisions were to be made, they should be done so in a public place.
Much of what Shepard talked about during the workshop was based on what he called personal experiences, one of which was on the topic of the Sunshine Law and polling. He said he was interviewed by the state attorney’s office over that issue.
One of Shepard’s stories was about “Textgate,” a controversy that erupted in September 2012 when Orange County commissioners were accused of exchanging, then deleting some, text messages with lobbyists during a public meeting about a ballot referendum that, if approved, would require businesses to pay their workers during sick leave. Amid the negative publicity, the investigation launched by the state attorney had a difficult time retrieving the messages.
According to news reports, Orange County was ordered to pay $90,000 in legal fees as a lawsuit settlement.
Not only did they have a Sunshine issue, but they also had a public record issue because it was part of thedecision-making process,” Shepard said.
Because of today’s political climate, it would be easy for any government official to get into legal trouble when it comes to the Sunshine Law, Shepard said, thus the reason officials must heed the information from his presentation. Also, if the Sunshine Law is violated, government officials’ claimed ignorance can’t save them from being prosecuted, Shepard said.
“There’s no such thing as being too careful because you are always one vote away from being somebody’s hero and somebody’s villain,” Shepard said.
A meeting is defined as a gathering of two or more members of the same governing body or that are conducted through any form of communication, written, spoken or otherwise. Though Sunshine Law cases are determined case by case, the Sunshine Law is intended to protect not government officials, but the public’s right to know, Shepard said.
“Your intentions are rarely the issue,” the attorney said to the various board members. “It’s what the public has the right to be a part of. You heard the expression, ‘If you knew how sausage is made, you probably wouldn’t eat it’? But in this case, it’s the public’s right to know how the sausage is made that the law is protecting,” Shepard said.
Mayor Joe Kilsheimer asked Shepard if it’s polling when a news media asks a government official for thoughts on a subject that may go up for a City Council vote. Shepard said that situation is an example of polling, but the official doesn’t know he or she is being polled, thus it’s a Sunshine Law violation.
“The press can do whatever they want, but you (the government) are expected to know what the law is,” Shepard said.
Suzanne Kidd was one of three members of the public who attended the Sunshine Law workshop meeting.
As a resident, Kidd said she is “relatively familiar” with the Sunshine Law from hearing about it and going to different government meetings. She also went to the workshop from the perspective of a homeowners association (HOA) board member for Muirfield Estates, part of Errol Estate.
Though she learned much about the law’s nuances and called Shepard’s explanations crystal clear, Kidd said she would have liked to see how government officials reacted to some situations that were brought up at the workshop.
Between public records made available on the Internet and the city of Apopka holding workshop meetings on various subjects such as the municipal budget and the new police, fire, and parks and recreation impact fees, members of the public would be able to see the city government’s decisions and why they’re made, Kidd said.
“The fact that very few people attend them (meetings), I think, is not an indictment of the administration for trying to make this available to people. I think it’s because people are busy, and don’t have the time to come to those meetings, or they’re not interested enough in the actual nitty-gritty of how a government works, that it doesn’t interest them.
“There are a lot of reasons why people don’t attend,” Kidd said. “But I think when you do attend these workshops, you are just so much better informed about how your government is making the decisions they’re making.”
As an HOA board member, Kidd said she understands that any phone conversation between two HOA board members could be considered a meeting.
“It’s good to know the limitations of what you’re able to do to protect yourself and also to protect the information going out to your community,” Kidd said.
By Teresa Sargeant
Apopka Chief Staff