Florida's Sunshine Law Shines Over Elected, Public Bodies

Nov 7, 2017

Credit floridafaf.org

A member of the Santa Rosa Tourist Development Council is charged with violating Florida’s Sunshine Law. That leads to the question of just what is a sunshine law, and what does it do? 

John Sanborn Jr. faces a non-criminal charge for allegedly discussing matters with another council member outside of a public meeting which foreseeably could come before the Chamber. His trial date is December 5.

“It’s been my experience that, in order to accomplish our goal of insuring that in the First Circuit matters are discussed ‘in the sunshine,’ it’s sufficient and most appropriate to charge the non-criminal violation,” said State Attorney Bill Eddins.

The website www.Findlaw.com defines a sunshine law as one that forbids and restricts closed meetings of legislative or executive bodies, and sometimes providing for public access to government records.” Eddins add that non-criminal cases generally are heard by a judge, while criminal cases are heard by a jury.

Bill Eddins, State Attorney for Florida's 1st Judicial Circuit
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

While the First Judicial Circuit may not have prosecuted the most Sunshine Law cases in Florida, Eddins says they’re certainly the most aggressive in the state. He cites the 2002 conviction of former Escambia County Commissioner W.D. Childers, when Curtis Golden was State Attorney.

“Childers received the maximum penalty for a Sunshine Law violation; a $1,000 fine and 60 days in jail,” Eddins said. “Our office, more than any other state attorney office in the State of Florida, has always been aggressive about prosecuting violations of the Sunshine Law.”

Sunshine laws in the Sunshine State go back more than a century. The first open meetings law in Florida was passed in 1905, applying only to city governments.

“And, everybody ignored it, so it was repealed,” said Barbara Petersen, President of the First Amendment Foundation – a Tallahassee-based group that teaches about transparency in government.

The Sunshine Law as we know it was passed in 1967, covering both open meetings and access to public records. It can be found in Chapter 286 of the Florida Statutes. Petersen says it’s the broadest law of its type in the United States.

“Most other states say that any meeting of a quorum of the members must be open,” Petersen said. “In Florida, it’s any discussion of public business by two or more members of the same board of commission.”

And given the presumption of openness under Florida law, Petersen says it doesn’t even have to be an in-person meeting,

“We had an issue come up here in Tallahassee where city commissioners are emailing one another, talking about city business,” said Petersen. “That’s a meeting for the purposes of our Sunshine Law, and because it wasn’t open and noticed to the public, it’s probably a violation of the law.”

Barbara Petersen, President of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.
Credit fsne.org

After sometimes conferring with the First Amendment Foundation, State Attorney Bill Eddins says his office makes the final call on whether -- and how -- to prosecute a Sunshine Law case.

“The law’s not [as] crystal clear as you might think,” said Eddins. “We try to be very careful and very conservative in these matters. “It’s not unusual for us to seek information from other sources.”

For FAF President Barbara Petersen, their strongest allies are the people of Florida. Her advice on making their voices heard to local and state governments can be summed up in a couple of words.

“Speak up; write letters to the editor, contact your elected officials,” said Petersen. “If you don’t like the way something was done, let it be known. Go to Facebook; go to Twitter. We have to take some stuff at face value, Ronald Reagan said ‘trust but verify.’ Let’s verify, please.”

While no “Sunshine Seminars” were held by FAF in 2017 due to personal issues, the events are scheduled to return in 2018 – with at least one to be held locally.

“We’re going to put on a series of spring seminars and I will most likely be out that way,” said Peterson. “Because it has been a while and I’m getting a lot of questions from Escambia County and Pensacola lately,”

More information can be found at www.floridafaf.org.