March 13, 2008
Access to PUBLIC MEETINGS in Florida
A Seminar Presented by The First Amendment Foundation
March 13, 2008 East Point, Florida
Sponsored by Concerned Citizens of Franklin County
Notes by CCFC President Allan Feifer
Last night your CCFC hosted an excellent seminar with the First Amendment Foundation. Below are my notes from the meeting.
Good Evening. My name is Allan Feifer and I am President of the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County. I want to thank everyone here today that took the time to come and learn more about what our rights are. I particularly want to commend the county employees and elected officials in attendance that are so important to this process. Americans are blessed with many rights but certainly one of the most important of those rights is the right to redress our government. Without factual knowledge citizens are powerless to challenge their government. When government operates in the shadows and when decisions are made amongst friends and associates instead of in front of the people; all of us are shortchanged and disenfranchised.
This is why the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County asked the state recognized First Amendment Foundation to put on a presentation today to explain our rights as citizens and the responsibilities that government officials have to be accountable to the citizens. Florida is in the forefront of States in making open government a priority.
I have the pleasure of introducing Barbara A. Petersen, President of the First Amendment Foundation. I then read a bio on her background. Following are bullets from the notes that I made. Attached is the handout that was used:
- Only a Judge can decide if there is a violation of the Sunshine or Open Records (OR) laws
- Citizens have a constitutional (State) right to information from their government
- Two or more elected officials talking about government business must be done in the Sunshine
- Public agencies of any description (or any private agency doing the work of government) are subject to Sunshine laws and must give reasonable notice of meetings, keep minutes and make all information available as soon as feasible.
- You need not wait for final documents, you can ask for the draft at any time.
- There is no exemption for personnel issues
- Enforcement. Your choice, State's Attorney, Civil Court, Sherriff, Attorney General's mediation program
- There is no such thing as Executive Session. The Board can declare the need for private meeting if it concerns specific actions such as litigation, but can't make any decisions. They can only be made in public. The private sessions must begin and end during an otherwise public meeting. They must take down minutes which must be released following the end of litigation. Also, they must disclose immediately following their closed door meeting if they discussed anything else that is not protected
- No County employee, official or private citizen can poll another to gain consensus. They call this daisy-chaining or being a conduit. This is strictly and clearly prohibited
- You have a right to ask any question you wish in any meeting. Reasonable rules of conduct and time may apply, but you can not be excluded. You can not be limited in any way as to what you want to talk about
- You have an "unalienable right to be present and to be heard"
- There are presently two bills in the Florida legislature to increase your access: Right to Speak and put force public disclosures onto web sites
- Budget workshops are just like any other public meetings. You have a right to be heard, though that right has not been adjudicated yet in court, therefore no precedent. This is very important to us since the Budget Workshop is where decisions are effectively made and we've been told that we do not have a right to speak. This is incorrect
- If you are denied a records request you have a statutory right to a written answer quoting chapter and verse as why you are not entitled
- Anyone who has custody of the records must respond. You do not have to be channeled to anyone specific.
- Your requests for information can be verbal or written