Message to public officials: Turn off your cellphones at a public meeting. Do not exchange emails or texts with each other, with residents or even with family members while conducting official business.
Message to the public: If you email, text, tweet or otherwise use electronic media to contact public officials about official business, you should expect that your messages will become part of the public record. Public officials in Florida at both the local and state levels have shown a persistent inability to understand — or a desire to evade — the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
Texting or emailing by cellphone to get board members’ take on an issue without speaking the question is an evasion of the Sunshine Law that has taken place in local-government meetings in parts of Florida. The illegal practice has drawn fines.
At the state level, Public Service Commission staffers were caught offering PINs — unique identifiers for cellphones that allow direct texting — of staff and commissioners. The offers were made to Florida Power & Light lobbyists while the utility sought PSC approval of a 30 percent rate increase.
If officials have any questions on whether or when it applies, they should err on the side of caution and consult the Florida attorney general’s Sunshine Law website: www.myflsunshine.com.
Here are excerpts of the website’s law definition:
“Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law provides a right of access to governmental proceedings at both the state and local levels. It applies to any gathering of two or more members of the same board to discuss some matter which will foreseeably come before that board for action. …
“Virtually all state and local collegial public bodies are covered by the open-meetings requirements with the exception of the judiciary and the state Legislature, which has its own constitutional provision relating to access.”
That “right of access” applies not only to official meetings and documents, but to public officials’ email, cellphone texts or any other means of communication tied to pending official action.
When not in a meeting, if officials send a text or email regarding official business, they should send a copy to a secretary or clerk who can make it a public record. Better yet, don’t do it. If the issue is important, ask the question aloud.
Officials across Florida have wasted too much time and taxpayers’ money in investigations, lawsuits and legal fees tied to actual or potential violations of the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
In short, official meetings are public; so are any and all communications pertaining to official actions.
This is the Sunshine State in more ways than one. Government should embrace that legacy — in both meanings.