House members grease way for public meetings to become secret

In what would be a substantial change to the state’s Sunshine Law, Historic City News reporters were shocked to learn that a House committee approved a bill that would allow private one-on-one meetings of local elected officials.

Currently, members of city commissions, county commissions and other local boards are barred from holding discussions with other members of the same board without providing public notice of the meeting.

“I recognize that this is an issue that speaks to the very heart of how local government operates,” State Representative and bill sponsor Byron Donalds told reporters with The News Service of Florida. “But, we have to ask ourselves one simple question: Are the members of local government, are they responsible for the best policy possible or maximum transparency? In my opinion, they are responsible for the best public policy for their local citizens.”

Historic City News editor Michael Gold warned that this is the worst possible piece of legislation that would come out of Tallahassee in more than 50 years if it becomes law.  “Anyone who thinks that something good will come out of public figures meeting in private before voting on public business needs their head examined and any lawmaker who would vote for such a law is not a representative of the people and should be removed from office using every means possible,” Gold said.

The Florida League of Cities, of which the City of St Augustine is a member, and Florida Association of Counties, of which St Johns County is a member, indicated support for the bill during Monday’s meeting, but the measure is opposed by the First Amendment Foundation, of which Historic City News is a member.

The House Government Accountability Committee on Monday approved a bill (HB 843) that would allow two members of boards to meet privately and discuss policy issues, though they could not take formal actions or discuss issues such as contracts with private vendors.

The bill is ready to go to the House floor, but a Senate version (SB 1004) has not been heard in committees.

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