Following strong voter mandates for greater governmental transparency in last November’s election, the Key Biscayne Village Council is set to discuss a first-ever ordinance covering “sunshine meetings” — informal sessions where officials can talk to each other and still comply with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law.
In what may be a related matter, Council Member Allison McCormick has also asked for a Tuesday agenda item entitled “a discussion about public records” with no further elaboration.
Elected and certain other public officials are required to post notices whenever they hold informal meetings amongst themselves. Although most sunshine meeting notices are put on the Village’s web site, the Clerk’s office has sometimes only placed paper notices on a Village Hall bulletin board. The informal meetings have also sometimes taken place at various offices or other locations and have not always been recorded.
Other municipalities push out email notifications to help fulfill the notice requirement. Key Biscayne once also provided email notices, but ceased the practice years ago.
The Open Meetings Law covers “any gathering, whether formal or casual, of two or more members of the same board or commission to discuss some matter on which foreseeableaction will be taken by the public board or commission,” according to the Floirda attorney general’s Sunshine Manual.
The topic of open meetings — where the public has a right to attend — has occasionally been a subject of controversy in Key Biscayne, where officials once ejected a reporter for attending a Council meeting even though some Council members attended in person. An ejection of a resident from a sunshine meeting in 2018 also was contentious and led to an ethics complaint. The complaint was later dropped.
In November, island voters overwhelmingly approved two open government amendments to Key Biscayne’s charter. Amendment 7, which passed 65% – 35%, requires the Council to write open meeting rules that can be more transparent than the state law. Voters gave even greater approval of courtesy electronic notices, with Amendment 6 passing 75% – 25%.
The draft ordinance to implement Amendment 7 would:
- Require at least 48 hours notice of sunshine meetings
- Apply only to Village Council members, but not other Village boards
- Require that sunshine meetings take place exclusively in the Council Chambers or be a “virtual public meeting” held online.
- Require that minutes be taken
Jennifer Stearns Buttrick, a member of the Charter Revision Commission that put forward both amendments, said she would suggest changes to the draft, especially when it comes to notice.
“I think notice is critical,” she said. “Posting on a bulletin board at Village Hall is an absurd way to notice meetings.” Council Member McCormick, who sat on the Charter Revision Commission, could not be reached for comment about her public records agenda item.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Key Biscayne Independent Editor Tony Winton spoke in favor of Sunshine matters, including open meetings and access to public records at a meeting of the Charter Revision Commission in 2022.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.