House Blocks Private Meetings For Local Officials

May 2, 2017

According to state law and conventional wisdom, sunshine is the best disinfectant for political corruption. Florida lawmakers agreed Tuesday. The House blocked a plan to let local officials keep some of their meetings in the dark.

Credit State Bar of Wisconsin / http://www.wisbar.org/NewsPublications/WisconsinLawyer/Pages/Article.aspx?Volume=86&Issue=3&ArticleID=10692

Florida’s sunshine laws require government meetings to be noticed and open to the public. It’s part of protecting voters’ access to their elected representatives. But the laws can make it difficult for Tallahassee City Commissioner Gil Ziffer to maintain friendships with his colleagues.

“That’s one of the things that helps us work more collegially. If we’re friends and if we can have that kind of friendship I think it probably helps us when we work together on the dais,” Ziffer said.

The strict rules mean local officials can’t interact like regular coworkers. Republican Blaise Ingoglia represents parts of Hernando County. He says because they can’t pick up the phone and talk shop with their colleagues, officials may rely on staff or lobbyists instead.

“Part of the situation is we have powerbrokers behind the scene. We have administrators. We have staff which are basically driving the train with a lot of these county governments. And there’s no way to keep staff honest,” Ingoglia said.

Naples Republican Representative Byron Donalds says hours-long public meetings may be transparent, but they’re not efficient.

“To notice a meeting for everybody to come together makes the assumption that local officials have nothing else to do with their time except be local officials. We all know that they have other things to do with their time, whether that’s run their businesses, do the other service that they have to their community,” Donalds said.

"We have staff which are basically driving the train with a lot of these county governments."

All of these complaints are spurring lawmakers to re-evaluate the law. Donalds says the current system treats all officials like they’re corrupt.

“To say that they can’t pick up the phone? And simply say, what’s going on with this issue? I heard this. What did you hear? That that somehow means that they are now going to be in a smoke-filled room?” Donalds said.

Donalds filed a bill to let local officials meet one on one, outside of the public eye. But House lawmakers rejected the measure Tuesday. Barbara Petersen is with Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. She says the sunshine laws protect the public’s access to their representatives.

“We have a right, a constitutional right for oversight. And we have a need to hold our government accountable,” Petersen.

There were some restrictions in the bill. Officials wouldn’t be able to take votes, or talk about publicly funded projects. But that didn’t satisfy critics like Petersen.

“Those safeguards are virtually meaningless if there’s no record of what occurred,” Petersen said.

"Safeguards are virtually meaningless if there's no record of what occurred."

Coconut Creek Democratic Representative Kristin Jacobs served in local government for sixteen years. She says coming to the table with questions makes for a better process.

“I firmly believe that the kind of debate that takes place in view of the sunshine yields a much healthier outcome than when the deal is already decided before you get there,” Jacobs said.

Local officials can get feedback from staff and citizens, and hash out policy details in public workshops. Commissioner Ziffer admits it may not be efficient. But he doesn’t want to lose voter input or risk corruption because the process is inconvenient.

“I still think it’s better for us to have conversations about things in an open setting, in a public setting so that there’s no question about what our motives are and what we’re talking about,” Ziffer said.

The bill won bipartisan support and the final vote came to 68 yeas and 48 nays. While more lawmakers voted for the bill than against it, the measure failed to win the necessary support of two thirds of the chamber. A similar bill in the Senate has not had a single hearing, meaning the plan is likely dead for this session.