Guest Op/Ed: Did School Board Violate Sunshine Laws?

Guest Op/Ed: Did School Board Violate Sunshine Laws?

In a February 28 message to district employees, Manatee School District Superintendent Tim McGonegal reported that the School Board met in an Executive (i.e. “secret” “private” “outside the Sunshine”) Session on Monday (February 27) night and: 1.) “decided it was not in the best interest of the School District or its employees to become involved in protracted litigation to resolve the legal issues; 2) “directedSuperintendent  Tim McGonegal to make the salary decrease for teachers effective February 16th; and 3) “directed the Superintendent to bring back a recommendation at a special School Board meeting to ensure all employee groups in the district are treated fairly in light of this decision.” (Emphasis added.)

Is the Superintendent reporting conduct that violates Florida’s Sunshine laws?  Did those School Board members who met Monday night (Board Member Karen Carpenter declined to be a part of this “Executive Session”) improperly conduct public business outside of the “Sunshine”?

Florida Statute 286.011(1) sets forth the general “Sunshine” rule concerning meetings of public officials of the same body.  “All meetings of any board . . . . ., except as otherwise provided in the Constitution, at which official acts are to be taken are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, and no resolution, rule or formal action shall be considered binding except as taken or made at such a meeting.”

According to Superintendent McGonegal, the School Board (or at least those Board members who were present) made decisions and gave directions to McGonegal Monday night. So the next question is: Was this decision making and direction giving by the board outside the Sunshine in some way exempt from Section 286.011?

Defenders of the board might argue that the board is protected by the public labor negotiations exemption statute, Florida Section 447.605(1), which provides “All discussions between the chief executive officer of the public employer, or his or her representative and the legislative body or the public employer relative to the collective bargaining shall be closed and exempt from the provisions of s. 286.011.”  (Emphasis Added)

Does this argument hold water? Are decisions and directions by a public body exempted from Sunshine requirements because of this statute?

To apply the exemption, defenders would have to convince us that making decisions and giving directions are the same as “discussions,” and we should give an expansive or liberal construction to the word “discussions.”.

Those who believe that these secretly made decisions and directions contravened our Sunshine laws,  might argue that if the legislature had intended to exempt from the Sunshine Law making decisions and directions, the legislature could easily have added the words “decisions and directions,” in the statute following the word “discussions”. . . but thelegislature clearly did not do that. Such believers could also argue that our courts have repeatedly ruled that exemptions to our Sunshine laws are to be narrowly construed and that the word “discussions” in this context should not be broadly construed to include “decisions and directions”.

Did Board Members skirt the law? Or cross the line? What we know for sure is that these questions would not be asked if our board would just trust the public enough, trust the people who pay their salaries enough, to hold all of these meetings in the Sunshine. Do we deserve anything less?

Dave “Watchdog” Miner