Five County Commissioners, No County Commission
The Japanese proverb “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” often shown pictorially with three monkeys is meant to depict a principled way of living, but in the Western world sometimes is used to show three ways to ignore evil. A third and Florida way of interpreting the monkeys is that they indicate that communications between elected officials is evil. Enter the Sunshine Law…
We know that the intent of the Sunshine Law is to insure that the machinations of our public officials are above-board and readily open to public scrutiny. The Law consists of that which the State Legislature passed and judgments rendered by the courts while interpreting the Law. It is interesting to note that the Legislature has some exemptions from the Law. (Sound like national health care?). The Law, while pure in its intentions, creates an unintended consequence for county governments among others.
Outside of official county board meetings the Charlotte County Commissions cannot communicate with one another without risking violating the Sunshine Law. Their meetings must be publicly pre-scheduled with an agenda and an official recorder must note the proceedings. Any other contacts between them are at risk. A simple comment by one commissioner stating that the flowers in front of the County Building are attractive can provoke a complaint if later on the commission votes on landscape issues. Sure, the example seems somewhat absurd, but officials have been cited for such things in the past. The restrictions also apply to the MSBU’s (Municipal Service Benefit Units) and the MSTU’s (Municipal Servicing Taxing Units). Remember, there are some petty individuals in society whose egos thrive on harassing public officials whether there is reasonable cause or not.
Ever noticed that Commissioners appear on radio talk shows only one at a time? Interviews with the media? One at a time. During social events (even house parties) if more than one Commissioner is present, they avoid one another like the plague so they remain in so-called compliance with the all-encompassing Sunshine Law.
To some the aforementioned example and situations may appear to be somewhat trivial, but there are other situations that prevent the Commissioners from acting in the best interests of the citizens of Charlotte County. Regularly, complex issues come before the Commission that require research and advice to resolve appropriately. Imagine being in a situation where you cannot discuss pertinent details with your colleagues informally and compare thoughts and ideas. In a business environment this would be absolutely intolerable and would be considered dereliction of duty if allowed to continue. But no, when acting under the umbrella of the Sunshine Law, this is considered laudable.
Someone attempting to explain an involved contract or project to the Commissioners must address each Commissioner separately rather than as a group where interplay of questions and opinions can occur. It is impractical to conduct such discussions at the scheduled Commission meetings – the meetings would be running almost continuously throughout the week. The current alternative can and does result in hours spent with each Commissioner without the benefit of an exchange of information.
The provisions of the Sunshine Law that are feeble attempts to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” are forcing the five County Commissioners to act as individual Commissioners rather than as a unified body called a Commission.
The State Legislature must address this situation and loosen the provisions of the Sunshine Law in order to allow elected officials to perform the duties of their offices in a reasonable and rational manner. To allow this chaos to continue is dereliction of duty by the Legislature and continues to tie the hands of the Commissioners who were elected to serve the best interests of the citizens of Charlotte County. Perhaps the Legislature’s stepping up to the plate will reduce the number of frivolous and sophomoric accusations of Sunshine Law violations. Remember, “we the people” had the Law passed and this correction again is for “we the people!”
Anthony J. Biell
March 28, 2011