Shut the doors and let us talk: Hernando County commissioners want to ax part of Florida Sunshine Law

Commissioner Steve Champion pitched the idea, saying it would make their work more efficient and reduce public disagreements.
ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times
Hernando County Commissioner Steve Champion
ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times Hernando County Commissioner Steve Champion
Published August 21
Updated August 21

BROOKSVILLE — If only Hernando County commissioners could discuss important public policy issues in private. If only they could do it without sitting in front of the video camera and all those constituents. Surely, their work would be more efficient, and it wouldn't look like they are always disagreeing with one another.

That was how Commissioner Steve Champion pitched his idea last week that the county should seek a change in the state's Government in the Sunshine Law, allowing them to meet behind closed doors.

Two of his fellow commissioners supported the idea, but they took no action.

Still, the discussion has not gone over well in other corners of the community. Social media posts erupted after the Aug. 13 Commission meeting, largely from critics who were not surprised the commissioners didn't want public scrutiny over their sometimes controversial decisions.

Champion's suggestion came a few weeks after he was featured in a Tampa Bay Times story about how he blocked critics from his Facebook page, even as a federal appeals court ruled last month that President Donald Trump violated the First Amendment when he blocked critics on his Twitter account, where he conducts public business.

Champion's latest suggestion brought mixed reviews from local legislators.

Intended to ensure that the public's business is conducted in public, the Sunshine Law prohibits members of local boards — including county commissions, city councils and school boards — from talking to one another in private about issues they likely will vote on. State legislators are not bound by the same rules.

"Primarily what the public sees up here with us is going back and forth, primarily because we can't talk to each other,'' Champion said. "What can we do about the Sunshine Law to change this?

"What's wrong with us sitting down and talking about it and disclosing to the public? And I know the law says you can't, but we would go a lot farther if we had the option of doing that.''

Commissioner John Allocco agreed.

County attorney Garth Coller said they could ask their local legislators to sponsor such a change. A state bill was proposed in 2017 to allow local officials to meet in private, but it didn’t meet the two-thirds approval required for passage in the House.

"The state, the House and the Senate, can all talk to each other, but we can't,'' Champion said. "That's crazy.''

Commissioner Jeff Holcomb said he agreed that the difference didn't make sense.

"Laws are only governing people who do the right thing,'' Allocco said. "We know darn well that there are places around this state where there are people who are not following those rules.

"Who is being protected in the end? I would love to see our legislators do something about that, maybe make it a little less restrictive. Government would move along a lot faster. You'd have better dialog in commission meetings, as well.''

The county attorney seemed to agree.

"I think the public really gains more if they understand the dialog of what is behind the positions of the board members,” Coller said. “And you really don't have the ability to put that out there during short board meetings like this.” The commission meets twice a month, generally for four hours or more.

Citizens want all levels of government to follow the same rules, Allocco said, and the prohibition for local public officials don't seem fair.

Only Commissioner John Mitten spoke in favor of the Sunshine rule.

“It would be so much more fun to be uncivil in private, wouldn't it?” Mitten said, “but certainly I think there's good reasons why we have a Sunshine Law in small communities.'

“I think that the risk at local levels (is) for friends to make very strong blocks that are impenetrable over decades, over generations, ... and I think that the Sunshine Law really blows that up out of the water.”

County Administrator Jeff Rogers also weighed in,

"It's good maybe for efficiency'' to allow commissioners to meet in private, Rogers said, but "it opens up the increased ability for ... corruption in government.''

State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, voted with the majority of House members to pass the 2017 bill.

He would support it again, Ingoglia said last week. Allowing local elected officials to know what their colleagues are thinking about an issue takes some of the power away from the staff, he said.

"Staff can lobby for something that they want, and members of the board wouldn't known how their fellow members feel,'' Ingoglia said.

State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, disagreed that officials at all levels of government should have the same Sunshine rules. The 2017 bill never came to a vote in the state Senate.

If only two county commissioners meet privately, that is 40 percent of the commission, he said, but dozens of senators would have to meet to have the same impact. Additionally, state bills go through multiple committees, affording lawmakers many opportunities to argue the merits and allowing public input at each level. Bills get better as they go through the process, Simpson said, even if everybody doesn't agree along the way.

"I think that local government should operate in the sunshine,'' he said. "Local government is the closest to the people.''

Commissioners should schedule multiple discussions about important issues, if needed, so they can fully discuss them and have public input, Simpson suggested. Having to do that in Legislative conversations in Tallahassee, "will shake you to your core about your issue,'' he said.

If Commission discussions appear to be inefficient or members not collaborative, Simpson said, that doesn't matter. The work of making public policy needs the full discussion of all points of view and the view of the public.

"If a commissioner is too timid to tell the people what their position is, then maybe they shouldn't be a commissioner,'' Simpson said.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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