TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would have altered Florida’s open meeting law by allowing two members of any governing board to meet in private to discuss whatever they wished failed last week in a vote on the House floor.
It did not go unnoticed in Walton County, though, that state Rep. Brad Drake voted in support of the measure.
Drake not only represents a district that includes Walton County, where hundreds of thousands of dollars have been paid out because of Sunshine Law violations, he lives in the county.
“I would have thought Brad Drake, representing Walton County, would have seen the shenanigans and backroom deals that have gone on for years,” said Suzanne Harris, who successfully sued the county three times alleging public record and open meeting violations.
“Brad appears to be a legislator who favors back-room deals out of the Sunshine,” Harris said. “This is not what democracy was built on.”
Drake said he would have felt like a hypocrite voting against the bill.
“We in the Legislature are allowed to meet in private and discuss proposals,” he said.
House Bill 843, introduced by state Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples, said any two members of “any agency or authority of any county, municipal corporation or political subdivision with a total membership of at least five members may meet in private and discuss public business without providing notice ... or recording such meeting.”
It would have forbidden the meeting parties from taking formal action or discussing funding issues.
“Exempting such one-on-one meetings from public meetings requirements will allow such members to better serve the interests of the public which they have been elected or appointed to represent,” the bill said.
The bill actually received support from the majority of the House, 68-48. But an amendment approved by Florida voters in 2002 requires bills like the one proposed to be approved by a two-thirds vote.
Drake — a Republican from Eucheeanna whose district also includes Holmes, Jackson, Washington and northern Bay counties — said the safeguards Donalds introduced into the legislation would have been sufficient to protect the sanctity of the Sunshine Law while allowing local elected officials leeway to speak to one another at an event both were attending.
“I think that as long as people are not cutting deals, not conspiring, not discussing something pending or not trying to influence the outcome of some governmental matter it’s OK to discuss things that are going on in the community,” he said.
Drake said he “wholeheartedly” supports the concept of the Sunshine Law.
“If there are governmental officials for whom it is in their nature to act in a corrupt manner and stand outside the sunshine and break the law, they should be subject to punishment,” he said.
Drake was the only Northwest Florida representative to support Donalds’ bill.
State Rep. Mel Ponder, who served as Destin’s mayor before being elected to represent South Okaloosa County in the House, said he told Donalds he couldn’t vote for HB 843.
“I had to stick to the side of keeping things in the sunshine,” he said. “To me, it’s the above-reproach factor."