A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tom Lyons Gets it Wrong on Chapman Sunshine Situation

You may have seen Tom Lyons opinion piece in the Sarasota Herald Tribune dealing with Susan Chapman's fight regarding a possible sunshine violation. If not, here's a link.

I sent the following to Tom Lyons this morning:


There aren't many people that have spoken out publicly against Susan Chapman as forcefully as I did. My blog posting [Why I won't be voting for Susan Chapman] was read 446 times. To be fair, this was a position I later tempered as a pragmatic matter. [Whom do I least favor on May 14th? The answer may surprise you

Anyway, I wanted to establish my credentials as not always subscribing to the Susan Chapman line of thought.

I disagree with the conclusions of your piece. The open meeting and sunshine laws are there to prevent discussion between those governed by the law. Discussion. That means a back and forth, a dialog, call and response, question and answer, scheming, conspiring, plotting, -----  not stating an opinion.

There is a crucial difference -- in order to provide leadership public officials have to be able to express their views, and not just in advertised, open, recorded meetings. AND, they have to be able to find out what their constituents think and not just in advertised, open, recorded meetings The sunshine law exists as an impediment to scheming, vote trading, and strategizing between public officials, but that is different than expressing an opinion on a matter of public policy. 

You are correct that with no meeting record we can't tell if Susan or Suzanne responded directly to each other with a "No, I disagree with what she said." or "She's right." But if commissioners want to collude, we have no way of knowing what they may have said on a commissioner-to-commissioner phone call either. Sunshine laws don't prevent misbehavior, they just set expectations and provide impediments and penalties. 

There is a difference between Susan having a discussion with merchants with Commissioner Atwell present and having a discussion with Commissioner Atwell with some merchants present -- I hope you can see that. 

Your interpretation prevents elected and appointed officials from attending the same meeting if it is not advertised, open to the public, and memorialized in some way. That is very debilitating and that interpretation has kept me from attending meetings I should have been at. I serve with many committed local citizen environmentalists on ESLOC, but recently only one of us could meet with county consultants to discuss environmental matters. When two County Commissioners attend an ESLOC meeting, they apparently have been advised that one has to leave the room if the other wants to say something -- and this is at an advertised, open to the public meeting that will produce both minutes and an audio record!

Taken to extremes, officials subject to your sunshine/open meeting law interpretation could not appear as candidates on a Tiger Bay panel or attend the New Years Eve pineapple drop.

The crazy thing is I can write a Herald Tribune guest column, post on Facebook or any of my several blogs, or tweet my thoughts on any subject and those I serve with (on ESLOC, PARC, and MRMCC) are free to read my pronouncements, so long as they don't respond, which which would make it a communication or discussion. And I am free to read their thoughts in traditional or internet-mediated media. How is that different from two of us attending a meeting and expressing our views, so long as we aren't engaging each other in a two-way exchange? 

Susan's challenge is, in my opinion, on target and much needed. Public officials should have the right to express their views, even if colleagues are present. They should not have the right to engage in a discussion with those colleagues. 

So, I'm writing to encourage you to rethink, reconsider, and ideally retrieve some of the opinions expressed in today's column.