Sunshine laws are again in the news — this time related to an arts committee. Sunshine laws establish access rules for most meetings of boards, commissions and other state and local governing bodies, and cover things such as advance notice and rules for open (i.e., not secret) meetings.
Even with all the reams of stuff on sunshine policy, why does it seems like so much is happening under the radar or behind closed doors? Why do we get such awful debate in Commission meetings? Why are Commissioners and Administrators always in trouble for poor decision-making? Some thoughts:
- Too Many Rules: If your rules and explanatory manuals are measured in “inches thick,” you have a problem. Every time there is a breach, new language is grafted onto the old rules, which were also built on reactive policy-making in years past. This is a recipe for confusion and protracted process. No wonder people seek ways to bypass process — it is too difficult to get things done.
- No Forums for Deliberation: The Sunshine rules require discussions among decision-makers be held in public forums, which generally occur via televised commission meetings. Sounds good, but it means that effective discussion on the big issues — affordable housing, economic development, planning for the future — don’t’ stand a chance when the agenda is already full. There are few forums for commissioners to build a common platform through deliberation.
- Not Enough Sunshine in the Right Places: It seems like public outreach is designed to check minimum requirement boxes rather than encourage great public debate. The County now posts Commissioner emails, but only those among County Commissioners or to the county administrator. We don’t get to see a lot of emails-that-matter unless we constantly file records requests. This means a handful of insiders can still use email tactics to sway Commissioners. Another example is the sale of land at the corner of Fruitville and Beneva Roads to the lowest bidder. A price was negotiated over a two-year period, but was only put in public notices this summer.
What To Do
Eye on the Prize, People – We are so obsessed with process, we have taken our eye off the end game: How do we make a great place to live, work, visit and study for the great diversity of people, opinions and resources here?
New Assignments – Why not assign a Big Topic to each Commissioner? Housing, homelessness, transportation and manufacturing could all be assigned to the various commissioners, and they would be responsible for becoming the expert, building coalitions and seeking solutions. Imagine going from “I’m afraid to walk downtown,” to “These three cities approached the problem like this, and we think these two are worth looking at.” That would be leadership.
Better Public Notice – Putting a three-point font notice in the newspaper two weeks before a meeting, and not posting the background information until the Friday before said meeting is not working. Let’s be clear: Some decisions don’t need to be fully advertised and vetted, and sometimes full-blown process results in a worse outcome for the public. But posting the “Big Things We Will be Working On” is critical.
Open up the Emails – Some County Commissioners are hesitant to post the obscenity-filled tirades and personal attacks that arrive almost daily. Here’s our philosophy: People who resort to this language do so because their cause is weak or they are an ineffective spokesperson for a good cause. If Commissioners don’t want to open up emails because big-dollar community patrons might show how they want the agenda set, then that’s all the more reason.
In the Know
There are all sorts of groups around town that keep up with things. This list is not an endorsement, and we are not so sure these old guard groups would be all that excited about the new guard coming in with different ideas about the future. But you know what? Sunshine works both ways.
Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations
The Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations
Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government – Good links to city and county calendars and meeting notices
Sarasota Voices – a Yahoo account chock full of meeting alerts