Clarity on ‘Sunshine Law’

Injunction shows need for transparency on homelessness task force

Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin created and convened the City-County Homeless Advisory Task Force to promote cooperation on the issue between government and private-sector agencies.


Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 6:06 p.m.

Public discussions about homelessness in Sarasota have historically been contentious and unproductive, so it’s no wonder City Manager Tom Barwin wanted a task force on the topic to meet in private.

But a respected local judge made clear yesterday that meetings of the City-County Homeless Advisory Task Force should be publicized in advance and then conducted in a forum open to the public.

Circuit Judge Lee Haworth granted a temporary injunction Wednesday morning, in response to a complaint filed by a local government-watchdog group, Citizens for Sunshine. The “stipulated order,” to which the city’s attorney agreed, resulted in cancellation of a task force meeting that had been scheduled for yesterday.

The plaintiffs contended that the task force was subject to Florida’s open-meetings law because it included appointed public officials, met regularly — Wednesday’s session would have been the group’s sixth — and produced recommendations for consideration by local governments. Haworth clearly agreed that the meetings were subject to the state’s “Sunshine Law.”

Constructive discussions

We have commended Barwin, city manager since September, for recognizing the need for Sarasota to take a new approach to homelessness — and the conditions it fosters and the problems it causes. By creating and convening the task force, he has helped promote cooperation between government and private-sector agencies and, just as important, attracted financial support from local philanthropists.

The task force has had constructive discussions about the value of hiring caseworkers to help police officers who deal with homeless people — and to aid those want help getting off the streets. The group has also discussed hiring a well-known expert to create an action plan aimed at taking steps to reduce homelessness.

These efforts represent progress and, with proper implementation, they could help both the city and county of Sarasota capitalize on the momentum in the community for comprehensive change.

In light of the scope of the challenges — and the need for even greater cooperation and communication between governments and the private sector — the injunction provides a welcome impetus for taking the task-force meetings public.

We hope that members of the public, including representatives of local governments and service providers, who attend future task-force meetings use the opportunity to foster dialogue and cooperation. This point is vital; during the past 11 years that Sarasota has debated homelessness, divisiveness and personal agendas have too often derailed progress.

A temporary setback

Judge Haworth’s injunction prohibited the implementation of “any action or recommendation” of the task force, “including the expenditure of any public funds that occurred as a result of any prior meeting” that was not properly advertised.

That part of the judge’s order is an unfortunate consequence of running afoul of the open-meetings law; however, the task force can and should be able to overcome this temporary setback.

The plaintiffs, in fact, issued this statement after the injunction was issued: “Hopefully, the important work of the task force will continue, but in a transparent fashion.”

Well said.

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