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Date of Issue: November 25, 2009

Sunshine in Anna Maria

An estimated 25-30 people attended a Nov.18 seminar in Anna Maria on Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law and how it applies to city staff, volunteer boards and elected officials.

The seminar was lead by city attorney Jim Dye.

In addition to newly elected Anna Maria Commissioner Harry Stoltzfus, others who attended included Commissioners John Quam, Chuck Webb and Jo Ann Mattick, city staff, members of the city’s boards and committees and new Holmes Beach Commissioner Al Robinson, along with some members of the public.

The city holds the seminar every year following the induction of new city commissioners.

Dye said the seminars are designed to inform and educate people involved in city government about the law. Florida has a model open-government law for the nation, he said.

Essentially, the law is divided into two parts, Dye said. The first deals with public meetings, while the second part involves public records.

A public meeting is any meeting between “two or more people who can take action” on an issue, Dye observed. “Take action” means there could be a vote by the same two people at the same time on an issue. These meetings have to be noticed to the public.

It is a misconception some people have that a city commissioner can’t discuss an issue with a planning and zoning board member without a public notice. Those two people do not sit at the same voting table and are “not on the same body,” said Dye. They are permitted to discuss most issues without public notice.

Because the mayor does not have a vote on the commission, commissioners individually are free to discuss issues with the mayor without a public notice. However, two commissioners cannot meet with the mayor at the same time.

A new area covered by the public records portion of the Sunshine Law is electronic communications. The courts have determined that e-mails to and from public officials about public business are official documents and need to be available to the public. The exception is the “one-way” e-mail, where no reply is requested.

Violating the Sunshine Law on e-mails could be costly. The Venice City Council recently had to pay nearly $1 million in a lawsuit that claimed e-mails between council members about city business constituted a public meeting and should have been noticed, and the city violated the Sunshine Law by not keeping a record of the e-mails.

Anna Maria holds a Sunshine Law seminar every year shortly after the general election. It is the result of a judge’s mandate following a successful claim brought by The Islander against the city more than a decade ago for denial of public access to records.