Keep the Long View on Sunshine

Under The Hood


The Sunshine Law case against Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman this week may finally have come to a close, with an appeals court affirming a court decision from last year determing the commissioner didn’t violate the law when she attended a 2013 private meeting at Tsunami where another commissioner was present. While Chapman expresses a level of vindication, the news comes a little late to provide any political bounce, weeks after Chapman’s re-election bid ended in defeat.

What I’m most hopeful for now is an end to years of hyperbole on all sides about ramifications of this case. Too many community leaders have argued Sunshine in recent years based less on the intent of law and more on whether they admire or dislike the pol at the center of any particular scandal. What’s this mean and for the future regarding how public officials can and should behave? Nothing. The same rules apply as always did, and elected officials should always adhere to those rules and avoid any appearance of impropriety, if only to avoid the embarrassment of defending their actions in court.

Certainly, Chapman’s success should be not be seen by any public official as a chance to play recklessly with the law. This case centered around whether “deliberation” occurred between Chapman and fellow Commissioner Suzanne Atwell when both were there; the courts determined it did not.

But, without getting lost in the particulars of this case, it’s notable Judge Brian Iten also concluded the commissioner’s attendance at a gathering where a colleague would be was unwise. “This Court’s ruling in this case should not be deemed an endorsement,” he wrote.

Many have asserted that a different ruling would make it impossible for two commissioners to meet at a Tiger Bay meeting or a gathering of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations. That’s simply not true. Two commissioners could always attend, and could listen to citizen positions on city business. What they could not do—and still cannot do—is participate and share their thoughts on to handle the issue with another voting member of their board sitting right there. The larger the meeting, the more foolish it would be to blatantly violate the law in front of so many witnesses. The more private a meeting, the worse it would appear to the broader public when facts came to light.

I’m Sunshine Law cases in Florida that resulted in officials getting admonished for minor infractions and other instances where officials got away with brazen action with no consequence. In the mid-200s, I recall a state attorney’s office threatening action on a Cape Coral councilman, who eventually had to attend remedial training on the law, after he was caught on camera discussing an issue with a colleague at the dais during a five-minute break at a meeting. Meanwhile, a few years earlier, three Lake County commissioners suffered no consequence after taking a four-hours-both-ways trip to Tallahassee in the same van and coincidentally days later called to fire the county administrator in a 3-2 vote; you see the law allowed the officials to drive to the capital together so long as they don’t discuss county business, and they swore they did not.

So yeah, this law’s funny sometimes. And both sides get pretty self-righteous about it. But it remains a safeguard on government transparency— something Floridians take for granted. Elected officials should always be able to hear from constituents about important civic matters, but the decision-making process on determining solutions should be something we all can see. Let’s hope high emotion over certain isolated events never leads lawmakers to compromise that ideal.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor to SRQ Media Group.

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