Phil Lewis: Forecast for Sunshine in Tallahassee

Phil Lewis: Forecast for Sunshine in Tallahassee

On occasion in Tallahassee, bills are introduced in the State Legislature to amend Florida’s Sunshine Law.

Usually that’s cause for alarm among those who believe ardently in open government and the public’s right to know.

That’s not the case with Senate Bill 206, which is making its way to a vote during the 2012 session. Each step forward is being met with applause and cheers from the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee and the newspapers that support it.

The bill, filed by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, would clear up any legal confusion over public participation at public meetings, like the ones held by county commissions, school boards and city councils.

The Sunshine Law is quite clear that such meetings must be open to the public, but there has been a gray area in terms of how much public participation can take place.

Do those attending a city council meeting have a right to speak? Or, can an elected body block or limit participation?

Such questions about the public’s right to participate flare on occasion, though admittedly those occasions have been rare in Collier and Lee counties. That’s because most elected boards locally have adopted policies that outline when an audience member can speak and for how long.

For instance, the Collier County Commission has scheduled times during meetings for the public to comment and in most cases they impose a five-minute time limit with a buzzer that sounds when time is up. But, those rules are by policy, not state law. In other parts of the state, those attending meetings are sometimes prevented from speaking at all.

Negron’s bill would make citizen participation a matter of law.

It would require periods of public comment. It would make sure citizens are given a reasonable opportunity to speak.

There would be exceptions.

Public comment could be denied during meetings when a government board is acting as a quasi-judicial body. These are rare, but when they do occur, the meeting is more like a court session than a public meeting.

Public comment could also be denied when an elected board is meeting in times of emergency. If the public’s health, safety and welfare come under immediate threat – think hurricane spinning forward on a collision course – a county commission can meet without reserving time for citizen comment.

Senate Bill 206 would also make elected boards responsible for court fees, if they are ever found guilty of denying the public a reasonable opportunity to be heard.

A companion bill in the state House is making its way through committee. With luck, they will meet in conference and pass into law sometime in 2012.

Consider it a bit of Sunshine insurance.

Lewis is editor of the Daily News; his email address is plewis@naplesnews.com