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Private meetings, public business

Isaac Babcock

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Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley said some former and current commissioners may need to be more careful about violating state Government in The Sunshine Law after he said he's noticed commissioners meeting with each other outside of City Hall.

The law, known simply as the "Sunshine Law", forbids public officials from meeting with each other to discuss government business without the public being invited and minutes being taken. The law was designed to prevent officials from talking about public business, and therefore sharing information and making decisions regarding public business, in private.

That broad law includes social events where members of the same governing body may meet up to discuss legislative decisions without the public being aware of them.

It's at those social events that Bradley said the city was most in danger of running into trouble.

"There have been commissioners who in the past and recently have met together outside the commission chambers, at restaurants," Bradley said.

Bradley did not mention any commissioners by name during the meeting, nor did he imply that any commissioners had spoken about city business when they talked together.

He asked City Attorney Larry Brown to clarify the law to the Commission to avoid any Commissioners treading into dangerous territory, but Brown said that if the Commission is careful, they can talk whenever they want, legally.

"If you look in [The Government in The Sunshine Handbook], what the law requires at bare minimum is if two or more commissioners meet in a social setting, and there is no notice … they can't discuss public business," Brown said. "I've had government clients in the past where two of the elected officials go camping together …. I've always told them that you can do it technically but you have to stay away from any discussion of any matter of public business.

"In more rural communities I've told the guys to talk about football and hunting and fishing," Brown said. "It's hard to do. You have to be careful."

"Technically it's not per se automatically illegal," Brown said, adding that it's safe for commissioners to discuss non-public business, though he admitted that it's easy to stray back into talking about politics.

The appearance of impropriety has driven some local governments to avoid having more than one member of its council/commission at social events.

The attorney general has issued some official opinions on how public officials should approach the law. The bottom line: Be discreet.

"He says to avoid the appearance of impropriety and to look into how you transfer information," Brown said.