The Florida Sunshine law s. 286.011, Fla. Stat.; Art. I, s. 24, Fla. Const. also known as “The Sunshine Law” has been in effect since 1967. Its main purpose was to enforce government transparency, to prevent members of legislative bodies from making deals in “smoke filled rooms” behind the peoples back.
That was a laudable purpose.
But 1967 was before a popular internet, before Google and Facebook. While the law has many positive aspects it also has had some negative unintended consequences.
Legislators could no longer meet informally and simply exchange opinions, explore alternatives together and brainstorm. This was clearly not the intent of the law.
While I was chairman of the Bonita Springs CAB (Communications Advisory Board) we were subject to the Sunshine law and I could not help but realize its shortcomings in the way it was applied in 2007. Personal communications had grown at stellar speed. Google searches could find answers in seconds. Email was making “snail mail” obsolete. Facebook was starting to addict people with its global (and local) public square. I realized that there may be solutions that were not available in 1967: Internet fora.
I proposed the use of such fora (an email bulletin board on the city web site) to the Bonita City CAB in 2007 (and via email to the city council) to bypass the negative aspects of the Sunshine law while keeping with its spirit. Councilman Patrick McCourt, may he rest in peace, lauded my idea to the city manager at the time, Gary Price, and suggested that I be honored as innovative. However, Improving government functioning and enhancing Democracy were not priorities in Bonita at the time, and the idea went nowhere in Bonita.
Subsequently I did some research and found an AGO (Attorney General Opinion) AGO 2008-65 about the City Of Delray wanting to conduct an electronic bulletin board for their “Green Advisory Board”. The letter addressed a question from Ms. Terrill C. Pyburn Attorney, City of Delray Beach, about the legality of such a board under the Sunshine Law. The response by Attorney General Bill McCollum was intriguing.
The AGO stated that such a bulletin board would be legal under the Sunshine Law providing that certain conditions are met (my summary below).
1) The board would be publicly announced and meeting times posted with notice.
2) Meetings would be open to all.
3) Computers and assistance would be provided in the library for those who need them.
4) No voting will take place via the “bulletin Board”.
5) A quorum is not required for the Sunshine Law if no voting will take place.
6) Per section 286.011(2) minutes will be produced.
As an experimental start I would propose an official Facebook or FB like Group for the Bonita Springs City Council and boards where all of the above criteria are met. This forum would also give a participation opportunity to the elderly who are confined to their residences. Later we could evaluate emerging platforms from other companies.
Meetings could be held from 2 hours after a council session until 2 hours before the next session. An opening post would start the session and a closing post would end it. All of the interchange would be instantly available electronically on the FB Group. This would allow discussion and debate among the council who would be designated as moderators. The public could comment and post as well allowing for easy communication between citizens and council as well.
The city may first try this in an advisory board such as the Technology board or a new CAB to iron out all of the legal and technical wrinkles. This forum would have all of the benefits of the Sunshine Law without any of the drawbacks. It’s time for city government to enter the 21st century.
Jude Richvale is former chairman of the City of Bonita CAB (Communications Advisory Board). He also has BA in Human Communications and has over 40 years’ experience as a software designer and developer. He is currently running for a seat on the Bonita Springs City Council in the upcoming November election.