McIntosh Mirror: Reflecting news in the Tosh

Want to impact your community? Many of McIntosh's citizen boards have open seats and a council at a loss as to how to fill them.

Light-up McIntosh December 15

Light-up McIntosh will begin at the Civic Center at 6:30 p.m. The event will host Santa Clause and an area choir from six local churches will sing.

12.05.06 -- REPORT: School Board hosts a round table discussion with state Sunshine expert

By CHER PHILLIPS

Listen to the whole Sunshine Law Seminar: McIntosh Sunshine Law Seminar Dec. 5

A handful of McIntosh residents sat down Tuesday night with a Sunshine Law expert to learn more about Florida's open meetings laws.

Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation, spoke with and answered questions of residents who serve the town as board members, as employees and as the media. Most had concerns about how to negotiate the Sunshine law while serving on public boards in a town as small as McIntosh.

The seminar, paid for by the McIntosh Area School Board, competed for turnout with the local church event called David's Kitchen, a block away. Two school board members, two citizen board members, the town clerk, a councilman and this reporter showed up. Held in the town's Civic Center, the meeting followed the path similar to the council meetings, with Councilman Lee Deaderick taking the lead and playing his favorite role he calls devil's advocate, throwing in questions and commentary, going as far as to jokingly call the Sunshine Law a form of communism at one point. Deaderick did not hide his criticism of Florida's open record laws.

"As a public official, what's the best way to avoid the Sunshine so that you can do business in the rain?" Deaderick said.

Harper laughed and said, "That's such a bad question. Why are you such a party pooper about the Sunshine Law?"

Deaderick said that he felt that the Sunshine Law prevented the good old boy way of doing government but he felt like it got in the way of efficiency.

But Harper held her own and said that as an attorney she appreciated the devil's advocate role.
She laid out the basics of the Sunshine Law in regards to public meetings and explained that the core point of the law is to allow public participation in government. The law itself is based in Florida's statutes and access to the process is a constitutional right in Florida.

Gearing the seminar toward a board members point of view, she explained how people often just want access to the decision making part of the lawmaking process, even though it can be dull, or lengthy.

She broke down situations in which the Sunshine Law can be triggered -- the first being when two or more members of any public board discuss something that would come before that board in the future. Harper explained that the Sunshine Law could be triggered over a cup of coffee if two members of the same board are talking and something that would come before them is mentioned.

Deaderick asked how he could handle that kind of situation in a small town like McIntosh. His concern was how could he balance being a responsible councilman and finding out what his constituents want, while not stepping into any traps.

"It's virtually impossible not to have any contact," Deaderick said. "Anything we talk about can become the town's business. Are you supposed to wear a gag?"

After some discussion, Harper said that he can ask constituents for their opinions outside public meetings, he simply can't ask other council members.

She said one question she gets quite often is what is reasonable notice for a meeting. The Sunshine Law says that public meetings must be noticed. But the question is what is reasonable notice for each government? She said that the Sunshine law seems vague at times and that's purposeful. For instance reasonable notice for a public meeting means that the notice should be sufficient in regards to placement and timing. In McIntosh, meetings are noticed at the town hall. In larger cities, wider notice is required for it to be sufficient.

Harper also said that an agenda is not required per the law but it is a good idea so that people will know what will come before the board and not have to sit through meetings wondering if an issue they are concerned with will come up.

Another point of specific relevance to McIntosh was what minutes are required. Deaderick has been pushing for short, more abbreviated minutes that include just the votes. Harper said that minutes should be detailed enough so that people can read what went on.

Various board members asked questions to help figure out the fine line of when the Sunshine Law is triggered. Chris Rath, a code enforcement board member, asked if it was OK for her to ask another code enforcement board member what had happened at a meeting she'd missed. Harper said that discussing a recap would be OK but if she talked about what would happen in the next meeting, then that would trigger the Sunshine Law.

Town Clerk Debbie Miller asked specifically about retition periods for older public records, as well as the old audio tapes of the council meetings.

Another point Harper explained was that public meetings should be held in venues that can accomodate the number of people who might want to come to the meeting. She said she had a call recently in which a board's meeting locale did not accomodate handicapped and didn't have proper seating.

Walkup brought up the February workshop meeting the council held in the small Bible Study room off of the recreation hall of the Methodist Church. He asked if holding a public meeting in a church would exclude people who aren't Methodists. She said that as long as it wasn't a regularly held meeting noting an attorney general decision that determined that meetings purposely held in a place like a Christian school with the intent to keep certain groups out were not allowed. The lack of seating was a great issue in the February workshop.

Harper said another no-no for public officials was outside contact like notes being passed around, secret ballots, e-mails and actions taken to avoid doing business in a meeting. She said she gets phone calls on the FAF hotline from citizens saying they think they officials met in private because something that had not been resolved at the last meeting was suddenly resolved.

"Citizen are pretty savvy and they'll notice it," Harper said.

Harper explained that secret meetings that have consequences. She said that any action taken in a secret meeting could not be binding. Resolutions and hiring decisions make outside the Sunshine Law are treated like they never happened.

To the school board members present, Chip Bazemore and principal Shirley Lane, Harper spoke of some of the exemptions to public meetings that specifically speak to school boards like issues dealing with student confidentiality that apply to student records and how there are times when personnel information can become private when complaints are involved.

Harper also explained the options concerned citizens have. Residents who are concerned public officials aren't following the Sunshine Law have several options. First, they can go to their local state attorney. She said that though they are authorized to take action, they don't do it that often.

One good example of this that hits home involved a recent, formal complaint made by former code enforcement officer Art Davis to the state attorney's office in Ocala, in which Mayor Marsha Strange was cleared when the local state attorney declined to file an infraction against her. Davis' complaint was that Strange did not follow the Sunshine Law when she handed an open letter signed by about 100 residents back to the person who collected the signatures after she read it into the record in a council meeting in July. Davis was removed from office by the council during that meeting. In September, Assistant State's Attorney Mark A. Simpson found that Strange did not intend to break the law but thought she was returning the documents to the rightful owner - Casey Girardin. Documents from the state attorney's office say that Girardin provided a statement that she had destroyed the documents. Simpson wrote in his decision that he did not think the case had prosecutorial merit.

Harper said another route that can be taken is civil court but the drawback are hefty court costs. The final option she suggests residents take is mediation with the Florida Attorney General's office. She said the advantage of this is that it is free but the disadvantage is that it is voluntary. Not all parties are willing to sit down and work out an issue.

For public officials who knowingly break the law, a violation can mean a second degree misdemeanor, a jail term of up to 60 days and a fine of not more than $500. Harper said that only one person has gone to jail in Florida, though. An unintentional fine can be up to $500.

The FAF is a non-profit group based in Tallahassee who track any changes in the laws in the Florida legislature. They publish the "Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual" each year, which serves as the go-to text for understanding the the kinds of questions that came up at the Civic Center tonight, as well as the many exemptions in Florida's public records laws.

FAF Handouts: Click to enlarge



posted by Cher @ 8:44 PM,

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Editor

Editor and Publisher:

I'm Cher From McIntosh, FL I'm a graduate student at the University of Florida working on a master's degree in Mass Communication. While I was finishing my undergrad degree in journalism last year, I reported on McIntosh, Fla. for an in-depth reporting class. I figured that the reporting and the public record files should go somewhere people can access them. Reporters don't report to keep the information they find to themselves. Some of that reporting is included here in a forum that allows response. McIntosh suffers because with no news coverage, the local government and the rumor mill have too much potential to run rampant over residents. I moved to McIntosh in the fall of 1999. My profile

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The primary purpose of this blog is to accurately reflect what happens in town public meetings and dispel rumors. I record the meetings and make them available for download. One of the goals of this blog is to offer residents a place to voice opinions. The comments, views and opinions expressed there are not necessarily those of the editor.

 
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