Newly elected leaders across the state should get used to openness. Floridians expect it | Opinion
November through January is not just the holiday season, it’s also swearing-in season at all levels of government. It’s out-with-the-old, in-with-new time.
And in Florida, new officeholders discover – often for the first time – just how extensive the state’s Government in the Sunshine Law and public records laws are. From soil and water conservation district members to the governor, this is often a surprise to newly elected officials.
People new to public office routinely express astonishment at all the things these laws circumscribe. It usually falls to a helpful city or county attorney to brief them on this. And really, in most places this is a talk that needs to happen sometime during swearing-in season. Better a word to the wise now, rather than running into some costly legal action later on, where upsetting phrases like “second-degree misdemeanor” get tossed around.
Newbies will ask things like, “You mean I can’t just casually sound out the other members of my board to figure out who will say what and will vote which way?” Nope. “Not even a little strategizing over lunch?” Nope.
“How about texting about city business and upcoming votes? Hey, they’re texts, not documents.” Nope. They are real public records.
“Can’t I use my Gmail account instead of city email as a workaround?” A lot of other people from the governor on down have thought of that before, and have gotten in hot water. They’re still public records.
Rule of thumb for newly elected officials: Think of anything you say in a city email as though you’re saying it at a meeting. And assume any number of people, some of them reporters, might be reading them over your shoulder.
And think of the Sunshine Law like it says in the Bible: Wherever two or more are gathered, it is with you.
As strong as the Sunshine Law is, it does have exceptions – more all the time, though only the Legislature can approve new ones. And some government entities get creative with these exceptions. Just remember: Closed meetings have this way of drawing extra attention to themselves.
This is a lot for anyone newly taking a seat in a public body to absorb. They often object that these laws and rules make it harder to get things done. That they slow down everything. That they get in the way of frank exchanges of views.
That’s probably true. But in the trade-off between open government and making things easier for officeholders to move things along, open government won a long time ago.
Complaints like these mean the law is doing its job. It’s preventing politicos from legislating over drinks and using public meetings to announce decisions hashed out last week. Yes, this can hinder officials from getting things done, but often they are the kind of things officeholders will regret doing after more than five people find out about them.
Be reassured, though, that the Florida Legislature feels your pain and nibbles away at the law every time it goes into session. But despite that nibbling, Florida has some of the strongest open government and public records laws in the nation. And support for those laws is one of the very few things that Florida voters are consistently able to agree upon.
So, to our newly elected commissioners, council members and board members: Listen to the legal advice you get during orientation. It could save you a world of trouble later on.
This editorial was originally published in the Daytona Beach News-Journal.