After the events of 2010 pertaining to public records and e-mails, Anna Maria officials may want to mark Jan. 10 at 5 p.m. in calendars as a meeting not to be missed.
That’s when city attorney Jim Dye will hold Anna Maria’s annual court-ordered Sunshine Law seminar.
In addition to Mayor Mike Selby and Commissioner Gene Aubry, new members of the planning and zoning board, code enforcement board, capital improvements advisory committee and other committees must attend.
The city holds the seminar every year at city hall, 10005 Gulf Drive, following the swearing in of the new commissioners and mayor.
Dye said it’s not a bad idea for officials who attended prior Sunshine programs to attend the Jan. 10 course to refresh their knowledge of the law and learn of new court opinions.
Anna Maria, this past year, became involved in a political and legal dispute over public records and Sunshine. In March 2010, a public records request to ex-Commissioner Harry Stoltzfus resulted in the release of more than 1,200 of personal e-mails that discussed city business with private individuals. Stoltzfus sought a legal opinion on how he might avoid releasing his personal e-mails, but eventually had to release his e-mail communications related to city business.
Essentially, Dye said, Florida’s open government laws are divided into two parts: public meetings and public records.
A public meeting is any meeting between “two or more people who can take action” on an issue, Dye said. “Take action” means there could be an official vote by the same two people at the same time on an issue then or at a later date that has a binding effect. These meetings must be noticed to the public.
Public notice means the city must display an announcement of the meeting in a public location at least 24 hours before the meeting. The meeting notice must contain a date, time, location and subject.
There are misconceptions about the law. For example, a city commissioner can discuss an issue with a planning and zoning board member without a public notice, Dye said. Those two people do not sit at the same voting table, are not on the same body and are permitted to discuss issues without public notice, he said.
Joint commission-P&Z board work sessions do not count as sitting at the same voting table because no binding vote is taken at work sessions.
Also, Anna Maria’s mayor does not have a vote on the commission, so commissioners can discuss issues individually with the mayor without a public notice. However, two commissioners cannot meet with the mayor at the same time regarding city business.
As many in Anna Maria learned last year, e-mails are relatively new to the public records laws.
Dye said the Florida Supreme Court ruled that e-mails to and from public officials about government business are official documents that need to be available to the public. It makes no difference whether the sender or receiver is a private individual, as long as one party involved in the transmission of the e-mail about official business is subject to the open government law.
The exception is the “one-way” e-mail, where no reply is requested, Dye noted. “As long as there is no dialogue and no response,” these e-mails do not violate the Sunshine Law, he said.
Under a 2000 court order, Anna Maria holds a Sunshine Law seminar every year. The order resulted from a 1999 settlement following the city’s denial of public access to official records.