They're called 'public' for a reason
You may have missed the festivals but we’re concluding Sunshine Week here in America, the time we all celebrate open government.
I can bore you with facts about public records, open government meetings and how they work for us, that sort of thing. You know I can. I’m a weirdo about this stuff.
I won’t do that. But I also can’t ignore it, because access to the government is a VERY big deal and something I’ve followed closely all my adult life.
Early on, I wanted to know what the local government is up to. To write about the government, I had to understand the government. And I absolutely needed to know what the government can and CAN’T do.
Sometimes it’s a little gray. To take a stand I had to make sure I understood the rules, so I spent a lot of evenings in my mobile home in northern Michigan reading state law about government access and open meetings. One day, I’d say to myself, this research will come in handy.
That day came. The county commission in this little Michigan county had some legal issues and wanted to go into closed session to talk about it. The law said commissioners could confer with their lawyer in private. These folks didn’t have their lawyer. They had the lawyer’s LETTER and they wanted to go behind doors to discuss the letter.
Off they went into the jury room, where commissioners would disappear from the public for these closed meetings.
Ten minutes later, there was a knock at the door. A young, scared but arrogant newspaper reporter stood there, saying the meeting was illegal and if the commissioners didn’t cease it immediately, he would go to the county prosecutor’s office down the hall.
The board chairman gave the reporter a hard look. Then they all got up and walked back to the regular meeting.
It didn’t make the papers. No one complained or wrote nasty letters.
But a line was drawn, one that the reporter carried all his career. Simply, don’t mess with the public’s trust by going behind its back.
The Sunshine Law in Florida is straightforward: Two or more people on a public board can’t talk business in private. Now, I realize it’s much more detailed than that, but the basics are pretty simple.
Think of it this way: No work talk amongst one another outside work. In this case, the “work” is the public role. Elected, like city councilman, or appointed, like planning commission — doesn’t matter, the rule is the same.
Naturally there are exceptions, such as the meet-with-your-lawyer for lawsuit strategy.
Now. No one’s a bigger fan of this thing than me but, like anything else, we can get a little crazy about it sometimes. Sunshine violations are big targets of the Gotcha Gang.
Anyone on a public board who knowingly skirts the Sunshine Law deserves to get called out for it. But there are many instances of “oops” Sunshine Law violations, just as there are many “oops” moments in our lives. I don’t believe in going all nuts on technical violations of the Sunshine Law. Show me a pattern, an intent, and then we have a different discussion.
I’ll close with this story. Years ago I attended a Citrus County Legislative Delegation meeting (and, yes, that is as dull as it sounds) in the county commission chambers. There’s a door on the right that leads to another room where the commissioners and staff drift in and out during daylong board meetings.
On this day, the door was open. A few commissioners were in the chambers during the legislative meeting and one, then another, walked into the other room. As I sat there watching through the open door, one engaged the other, who had a look of panic because he KNEW this was a bad idea.
The one commissioner wouldn’t let up. Finally I got up and walked back there and said, “Hey, knock it off!” They both knew what I meant. And that was that.
The second commissioner has since thanked me for jumping in. I’m happy to report this former commissioner is an outstanding community leader, able to engage with citizens without the scorn of being a public cheat.
Enjoy the Citrus County sunshine, everyone.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 35 years.