Should more of Blueprint be subject to public meetings laws? That depends on who you ask
The joint City of Tallahassee and Leon County Blueprint Agency met Thursday afternoon to discuss the agency’s governance. It comes after a bitter fight over funding repairs and improvements to FSU’s Doak Cambell Stadium.
That vote has raised questions about whether one part of the Blueprint Agency is running afoul of the state’s public meetings laws.
The Blueprint's board is made up of city and county commissioners who are elected and meet publicly. All board meetings are subject to the state’s Sunshine Law. But the part of the agency that issues recommendations and proposals for funding, does not. It’s called the Intergovernmental Management Committee, and it’s made up of the city manager, county administrator. Blueprint's director reports to them.
According to the state’s Sunshine Law “advisory boards and committees created by public agencies may be subject to the state’s Sunshine Law.”
The thing that determines if that meeting should have public access is what the people conducting it, are doing.
"Let’s say you have a committee assigned to review bids, and all the committee was doing was checking the math and the citations and make sure they were legitimate,” said Richard Herring with the local group Citizens for Ethics reform.
That sort of fact-checking falls under fact-finding according to the Sunshine Law, and therefore that meeting wouldn’t be subject to Sunshine.
"But if they’re ranking those proposals… so now the elected officials can come in and say 'let’s put that on the consent agenda to adopt their number one ranking'" then that sort of work would be subject to a public meeting says Herring, because it involves decision-making, and the public should know how such decisions were made.
According to the state’s Sunshine manual, "if a staff committee has been delegated decision-making authority as opposed to mere fact-finding or information-gathering, the Sunshine Law applies to the committee.”
Herring is a former chairman of the city’s independent ethics commission, and he’s a retired lawyer who has also worked in state government.
But another lawyer, Blueprint’s attorney Susan Dawson, argues the IMC does not need to comply with Sunshine Law because it’s not a board. Even though it does make recommendations, Dawson said IMC functions more like a manager, in that the city manager and county administrator are managing the Blueprint Director.
“What you should consider is how they’re structured and have been structured for over 20 years," she said in response to a question from City Commissioner Jack Porter.
"They are a governing management entity…co-executives who management Blueprint. That’s different.”
Porter had asked about what distinguishes the IMC from other groups that provide recommendations,
including those made by the staff of the city and county who often make recommendations to the commissioners.
Those staffers have more flexibility under Sunshine Law, but there’s a rub here too, says Herring. The people supplying recommendations to the city and county commissions are employees of their respective governments. But Blueprint is its own entity and neither the city manager nor the county administrator, who make up the IMC, are Blueprint employees.
“I think you’re supposed to be staff of the organization to whom you’re reporting to for this purpose," Herring said.
During Thursday's Blueprint meeting Blueprint director Ben Pingree said if the IMC were subject to Sunshine law, decisions like the ones that brought Amazon to Tallahassee, may not have been made in time for the deal to happen.
"They [Amazon] needed to know they could get a permit quickly. If they couldn’t meet the permitting capabilities, it would not have worked regardless irrespective of the incentive amount. Because I report up to [county administrator] Vince [Long], he was immediately able to be active and engaged on that project.”
Pingree was responding to a question from Commissioner Jeremy Matlow. Herring notes Sunshine Law has exemptions in place just for situations like that "so government isn't forced to put all its cards on the table and pay the highest dollar for everything it ever buys or give away the biggest incentives for everything it wants to promote."
Herring says it’s unclear whether Blueprint’s IMC structure violates Sunshine Law but on the surface, there are a lot of things that seem to suggest it should comply. The IMC question is one Herring, and others, believe should have an answer, and there are a few ways to go about getting one.
“Any public official involved in this and they could ask the attorney general to review this, and they could get an opinion," or "they could continue to have discussions and even if they decide they’re not in technical violation they could decide to change the way they operate, he said."
Someone could also bring a lawsuit.
Even if Blueprint is in the clear legally, Commissioner Matlow says the agency now has an optics problem "and I don’t think we can ignore it at all.”
Matlow attempted to make a motion for the board to ask for an opinion from Attorney General Ashley Moody, but it wasn’t taken up. Instead, after an hour-long meeting filled with terse exchanges, the commission adjourned on a recommendation from City Commissioner Diane Williams Cox.