Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dimming the Sunshine

You would think the sky had fallen.

Representative Byron Donalds (R-Naples) just introduced a bill in Tallahassee (HB 843) that would allow two members of an elected public board or commission with five members or more to meet privately to discuss board issues.

That, of course, would skirt the Sunshine Law, which says such get-togethers, even by two people, have to be publicly noticed.

Donalds expressed concern there was a double standard, since the Florida legislature -- notorious for its back-room maneuvers -- is exempt from the Sunshine Law, which applies to everyone else, to all other publicly elected groups in the state.

The outcry was swift, over-wrought -- and predictable.

Barbara Peterson, head of the First Amendment Foundation, was quoted as saying, "This obliterates our right to oversee government and hold it accountable." (One could just as easily argue that Donalds' bill restores the very essence of free speech.)

In an editorial, the Naples Daily News said, "His proposal obliterates five decades of a law we believe Florida should point to proudly." Lots of obliterating here. (The media, disingenuous defenders of Sunshine, loves the convenience of covering decision-making at a single, easily accessed meeting.)

The fact is the Sunshine Law does as much harm as it does good. It stifles the kind of thoughtful planning that many do best in private, one-on-one, with heated disagreements resolved out of the spotlight, with compromises possible without losing face in public, and with good policy often the outcome.

The Sunshine Law inevitably leads to long, tedious and unproductive meetings -- meetings that could be streamlined if two opposing board or commission members talked through their differences over a beer ahead of time.

Another problem, as Donalds correctly notes, is that Sunshine gives too much power to staff -- local managers, superintendents and administrators -- rather than to elected officials. The wrong people are often in charge. And the staff is free to pick off board members behind closed doors, to convince them one-on-one that administrative proposals should be supported (you're naive if you think that doesn't happen). Administrators can do that, but board members can't. Freedom of speech? I don't think so.

The problem is at its worst in appointed boards and committees -- advisory groups to city councils and county commissions.

When I applied for the Pelican Bay Services Division board, which is appointed by the Collier County Board of Commissioners, a friend who was just exiting PBSD said, "You're going to hate it," referring to the Sunshine restrictions. He knew I was used to before-meeting one-on-one discussions with other directors from private boards on which I served. He knew I was used to the kind of detailed interaction you simply can't get in noticed meetings with time-certain agendas and television formalities.

The result all too often is rubber-stamp voting. The staff knows the details (and implications), but the board members do not. Sunshine has kept them in the dark. And policy suffers. Almost always.

I have talked with directors on other appointed boards in Collier, and they invariably say the same thing. Efficiency is poor, everything takes too long and the end product is often lousy.

The PBSD tries to get around this by holding endless committee meetings, all duly noticed. But even that is no substitute for warring directors making peace at the local coffee shop.

The extreme absurdity of Sunshine was driven home when publication of an updated Clam Bay Guide was held up because I could not consult with a fellow director about a photograph of a reddish egret! You can't make this stuff up!

So hats off to you, Byron Donalds, for calling attention to Sunshine overreach. Your bill won't go anywhere, but it was worth the effort. Perhaps it would get some traction if it were limited to appointed boards. That would at least be a start.

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