Let the sun shine on the city government

Florida Sunshine Act s. 286.011, Florida St.; Art. East. 24, Florida Const. also known as “The Sunshine Law” has been in force since 1967. Its main purpose was to enforce transparency in government, to prevent members of legislative bodies from making deals in “smoke-filled rooms” behind the backs of the people.

It was a laudable goal.

But 1967 was before a popular Internet, before Google and Facebook. Although the law has many positive aspects, it has also had unintended negative consequences.

Legislators could no longer meet informally and content themselves with exchanging opinions, exploring alternatives together and brainstorming. This was clearly not the intention of the law.

Jude Richvale

When I was president of the Bonita Springs CAB (Communications Advisory Board), we were subject to the Sunshine Act and I couldn’t help but realize its shortcomings in its enforcement in 2007. Personal communications had grown at a dazzling. Google searches could find answers in seconds. Email made “postal mail” obsolete. Facebook was starting to get people hooked with its global (and local) public square. I realized that there could be solutions that didn’t exist in 1967: Internet forums.

I proposed the use of such forums (a bulletin board on the city’s website) to the Bonita City CAB in 2007 (and by email to the city council) to circumvent the negative aspects of the Sunshine Law while respecting its spirit . Councilman Patrick McCourt, may he rest in peace, praised my idea to then-City Manager Gary Price and suggested that I be honored as an innovator. However, improving the functioning of government and strengthening democracy were not priorities in Bonita at the time, and the idea was going nowhere in Bonita.

Subsequently, I did some research and found an AGO (Attorney General Opinion) AGO 2008-65 on the City of Delray who wanted to organize a message board for their “Green Advisory Council”. The letter was in response to a question from Ms. Terrill C. Pyburn, attorney for the city of Delray Beach, regarding the legality of such advice under the Sunshine Law. Attorney General Bill McCollum’s response was intriguing.

http://www.myfloridalegal.com/ago.nsf/Opinions/5C83D6BB0CF399DC8525751C005E15C2

The AGO said such a bulletin board would be legal under the Sunshine Law provided certain conditions are met (my summary below).

1) Council would be announced publicly and meeting times posted with notice.

2) The meetings would be open to everyone.

3) Computers and assistance would be provided at the library for those who need it.

4) No voting will take place via the “poster board”.

5) A quorum is not required for Sunshine Law if no vote will be taken.

6) In accordance with article 286.011(2), minutes will be produced.

As an experimental start, I would propose an official Facebook or FB-like group for the Bonita Springs City Council and councils where all of the above criteria are met. This forum would also give an opportunity for participation to elderly people confined to their homes. Later, we might evaluate emerging platforms from other companies.

Meetings could take place from 2 hours after a council meeting until 2 hours before the next meeting. An opening message would start the session and a closing message would end it. All exchanges would be instantly available electronically on the FB group. This would allow for discussion and debate within the council which would be appointed as moderator. The public could also comment and post, which would also facilitate communication between citizens and the council.

The city can first try this in an advisory board such as the technology board or a new CAB to iron out any legal and technical wrinkles. This forum would have all the advantages of Sunshine Law without any of the disadvantages. It’s time for municipal government to enter the 21st century.

Jude Richvale is the former chairman of the City of Bonita CAB (Communications Advisory Board). He also holds a bachelor’s degree in human communications and has over 40 years of experience as a software designer and developer. He is currently running for a seat on the Bonita Springs City Council in the upcoming November election.

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