THE ISSUE: Government in the Sunshine.
OUR OPINION: Law applies to all levels of local government.
The school board for the charter school known as the Academy of Environmental Science is a group of dedicated volunteers donating their time to manage an exciting educational opportunity in our community.
At the same time, they are a public agency and use Florida tax dollars to get the job done. Because of that, all of the official Florida rules and regulations apply to what they do. That includes the Florida Government in the Sunshine rules.
Florida voters adopted the Government in the Sunshine laws because too many politicians back in the day were hiding behind closed doors. Government corruption was rampant and too many decisions made by government officials favored the friends of politicians and not the taxpayers. Secrecy led to corruption.
The idea of the Government in the Sunshine Amendment was — let in the Sunshine and Floridians can keep an eye on what is happening.
The school board of the Academy of Environmental Science recently held a private meeting that was in violation of the state sunshine laws.
They were not doing anything corrupt or deceitful; they were simply trying to protect the feelings of two candidates who had made application for the leadership job at the charter school. Board members wanted to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates without the individuals (or the press) hearing the conversation.
It was innocent, but still clearly a violation of the intent of the law. Those who make application for leadership jobs at a public agency, and those who make the hiring decisions, sacrifice a degree of privacy. When you are doing the public’s business and spending tax dollars, it is the law that you do it in front of the taxpayer.
The board chair thought she was acting within the law because the final vote was planned to be in the public. She thought confidential conversations were permitted among the board members if no vote was taken. That is obviously not true.
The larger problem here is the understanding of the Sunshine Laws and the amount of training offered to these volunteer members. The county’s public school board would never make such a mess, because they are routinely trained and reminded about compliance.
It is obvious that a higher level of training is needed for those boards, especially the volunteer groups with the county, the two cities and the school board.
In the case of the Academy of Environmental Science, regular Sunshine Law training was delayed because there is a cost associated with it and they were trying to save money. Saving money is a commendable goal — but in the end, the results reduced taxpayer confidence.
The public demands that its business be done in the Sunshine. All public boards and government entities should learn from this unfortunate misstep.