Special districts, along with counties, municipalities and other governmental agencies, must comply with the meeting requirements contained in Chapter 286, Florida Statutes – Public Business: Miscellaneous Provisions, also known as the "Government-in-the-Sunshine Law" and the "Sunshine Law" and the public record requirements contained in Chapter 119, Florida Statutes – Public Records. Furthermore, special districts must comply with additional meeting requirements in Chapter 189, Florida Statutes – The Uniform Special District Accountability Act, and certain special districts may need to comply with meeting requirements in other laws.

This chapter provides an overview of public meeting requirements contained in several laws and public record requirements.

Public Meeting Requirements

An Overview of Florida's Sunshine Law

Florida's Sunshine Law assures open government in Florida. It applies to any formal or informal gathering of two or more members of the same board to discuss some matter that will foreseeable come before that board for action, unless statutorily exempted. In summary, this law:

  • Provides a basic right of access to most meetings of boards, commissions and other governing bodies of state and local government, including special districts.
  • Applies to discussions, deliberations and formal actions taken by the board regardless of whether the matter has been scheduled for a vote or whether there is a quorum present.
  • Prohibits board members from conducting private discussions about board business via email, telephone, text messaging, Facebook or any other form of communication.
  • Requires that any gathering (formal or casual) of two or more members of the same governing body to discuss some matter on which foreseeable action will be taken by the governing body must be open to the public unless the legislature has created an exemption from the Sunshine Law for that meeting. Exemptions related to special districts include the following:
    • Certain meetings between the governing board and its attorney to provide the attorney with advice on settlement negotiations or litigation expenses in pending civil or administrative litigation, provided strict compliance with specific statutory conditions.
    • Collective bargaining strategy discussions between the chief executive officer and a special district's governing board. However, the collective bargaining negotiations between the chief executive officer and a bargaining agent are not exempt and must be conducted in the sunshine.
  • Requires, subject to listed exemptions, governing boards to provide members of the public a reasonable opportunity to be heard on a proposition before the board.
    • The opportunity to be heard does not have to occur at the same meeting at which the board takes official action if the opportunity occurs at a meeting that is during the decision-making process and is within reasonable proximity in time before the meeting at which the board takes official action.
    • Does not prohibit the board from, "maintaining orderly conduct or proper decorum at a meeting." Boards can adopt rules that limit the time a person has to address the board, provide procedures for allowing representatives of a group to address the board and provide procedures or forms for an individual to use in order to inform the board of a desire to be heard, the position on the proposition and designation of a representative to speak for him or her.

Meeting Notices

The Sunshine Law requires each special district to:

  • Provide reasonable public notice of each meeting.
  • Include in the public notice a statement that anyone wanting to appeal an official decision made on any subject at the meeting must have a verbatim record of the meeting that includes the testimony and evidence on which the appeal is based (does not apply to tax increase notices in section 200.065(3), Florida Statutes, method of fixing millage).

In addition, the Uniform Special District Accountability Act requires each special district to:

  • Quarterly, semiannually or annually prepare a schedule of regular meetings that includes the date, time and location of each meeting.
  • File the schedule with its local governing authority or authorities.
  • Publish the schedule in the legal notices and classified advertisements section of a newspaper that: 
    • Is of general or paid circulation in the county or counties in which the special district is located;
    • Is a community newspaper of general interest and readership, as opposed to limited subject matter; and
    • Is published at least five days a week, unless the only newspaper in the county is published fewer than five days a week.
  • Post the schedule on the special district’s official website.
  • Post the following items on the special district' official website at least seven days before each meeting or workshop and keep them there for at least one year:
    • The agenda of the event.
    • Any meeting materials that are available in electronic format, excluding confidential and exempt information.

Independent special districts must:

  • Advertise the day, time, place and purpose of any meeting other than a regular meeting or any recessed and reconvened meeting at least seven days before such meeting in a newspaper of general paid circulation in the county or counties in which the special district is located. The advertisement must be published in the same way as the meeting schedule.
  • In the event of a bona fide emergency, provide reasonable notice, hold the emergency meeting and subsequently ratify the emergency meeting. Do not approve the annual budget at an emergency meeting.

Water management districts may provide reasonable notice (no less than seven days) of public meetings held to evaluate responses to solicitations issued by the water management district, by publication in a newspaper of general paid circulation in the county where the principal office of the water management district is located or in the county or counties where the public work will be performed.

Each special district should consult with its legal counsel to determine whether other laws addressing meeting notice requirements may apply, such as:

  • The special district’s charter.
  • The general law under which the special district operates.
  • The Administrative Procedures Act (Chapter 120, Florida Statutes), which may affect the following special districts:
    1. Regional Water Supply Authorities
    2. Multicounty special districts when a majority of its governing board is comprised of non-elected persons
    3. Special districts described in Chapter 163, Florida Statutes, Intergovernmental Programs, including but not limited to:
      1. Special districts established by interlocal agreement in which a state agency or any type of special district listed in this section is a party to the interlocal agreement.
      2. Collaborative client information systems created by a county.
      3. Community redevelopment agencies created by a county.
      4. Neighborhood improvement districts created by a county.
      5. Qualifying improvements to real property created by a county.
    4. Water management districts
    5. Land authorities
    6. Soil and water conservation districts

Suggestions for a Canceled Meeting

Neither the Sunshine Law nor the Uniform Special District Accountability Act address notice for a canceled future meeting. If a meeting must be canceled, the special district should provide reasonable notice as soon as possible to the public as a courtesy. For example, the special district could do one or more of the following:

  • Publish a cancellation notice in the paper.
  • Post a cancellation notice on its official website.
  • Post a cancellation notice on a bulletin board at its official headquarters.
  • Post a cancelation notice on the door to the meeting room.

Meeting Locations

The Sunshine Law requires each special district to hold its public meetings in a facility that does not restrict access or discriminate based on sex, age, race, creed, color, origin or economic status.

In addition, the Special District Accountability Act requires each special district to hold its public meetings in one of the following facilities:

  • A public building when available within the special district;
  • A county courthouse in the county in which the special district is located; or
  • A building in the county accessible to the public.

Meeting Minutes

The Sunshine Law requires each special district to:

  • Promptly record minutes of public meetings (an electronic recording or written transcript is not required).
  • Make the minutes available for public inspection.

Penalties for Sunshine Law Violations

The Sunshine Law provides the following penalties regarding a special district governing body member who violates the Sunshine Law:

  • A noncriminal infraction is punishable by a fine up to $500.
  • A criminal penalty (a knowing violation) is a second-degree misdemeanor and is punishable by a prison term up to 60 days and/or a fine up to $500.
  • A citizen may apply to a circuit court for an injunction to enforce the Sunshine Law. If the court finds that the Sunshine Law was violated, attorney's fees are assessed against the special district. Fees may also be assessed against governing body members. However, if the governing body seeks advice from its attorney and follows the advice, attorney's fees will not be assessed.
  • When a method for removal from office is not otherwise provided by the Florida Constitution or by law, the Governor may suspend an elected or appointed public officer who is indicted or informed against for any misdemeanor arising directly out of his or her official duties. If convicted, the officer may be removed from office by the Governor.

Public Record Requirements

Special districts, along with state agencies, municipalities, counties and other units of government, must comply with Florida's public records laws. Public records are all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software or other material, regardless of the physical form, characteristics or means of transmission, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or related to the transaction of official business by any agency. Examples include:

  • Correspondence
  • Emails and text messages
  • Facebook posts
  • Recordings of board meetings
  • Employment applications, evaluations and disciplinary records

These materials must be made available for public inspection and copying unless the legislature has enacted a statute which exempts these materials from disclosure.

No "unfinished business" exception applies to the public records law. If the purpose of a document prepared for the official business of a public agency is to perpetuate, communicate or formalize knowledge, it is a public record even though the record is not in final form. For example, a draft document from one district employee to another about district business must be disclosed unless the Legislature has created a statutory exemption for that record.

It is not necessary that a communication be sent or received from a government office to constitute a public record. In the absence of statutory exemption, all material made or received by agency officers and employees in accordance with official business is a public record regardless of whether the communication is sent from a government or personal account, such as Gmail or a personal cell phone. It is the content of a communication that determines whether it is a public record, not the location.

Providing Public Records

The public records law establishes a right of access to public records in plain and unequivocal terms:

  • Every person who has custody of a public record shall permit the record to be inspected and copied by any person desiring to do so, at any reasonable time, under reasonable conditions and under supervision by the custodian of the public records.

The "reasonable conditions” language referred above does not permit agencies to add their own conditions before review but instead refers only to reasonable regulations to allow the custodian to protect the records from alteration, damage or destruction. Therefore, the public records law does not authorize an agency to:

  • Require that a requestor identify himself or herself. For example, an agency must respond to an anonymous email requesting public records.
  • Require that public records requests be in writing or that a requestor fill out a form.
  • Deny a public records request because it is "overbroad."
  • Require a public records requestor to show a "legitimate" or "noncommercial" interest as a condition of access to public records, although there are statutes which provide penalties for illegal use of public records.
  • Deny a public records request at the request of the sender.
  • Establish an arbitrary time period during which public records may or may not be inspected. While the public records law does not contain a specific time limit (such as 24 hours or 10 days) for compliance with public records requests, the only delay permitted is producing public records is the reasonable time allowed the custodian to retrieve the record and delete those portions of the record the custodian asserts are exempt.

Fees

Providing access to public records should not be considered a profit-making or revenue-generating operation. The only fees authorized are those established in Chapter 119, Florida Statutes.

An agency may charge a reasonable deposit or advance payment, particularly in cases where a large number of records have been requested. In such cases, the fee should be communicated to the requestor before the work is undertaken.

Public Record Law Exemptions

The legislature has enacted over 1,000 exemptions to the public records law. Examples include:

  • Social security numbers
  • Medical information
  • Credit card and bank account numbers
  • Appraisal reports, offers and county offers concerning water management districts purchasing property until an option contract is signed or 30 days before a contract is considered for approval by the governing body.

Penalties for Public Record Law Violations

  • A person who has been denied the right to inspect or copy public records may bring a civil action against the agency. If the agency is determined to have unlawfully refused access to public records, attorney's fees are awarded to the prevailing party. An unjustified delay in producing public records can also constitute an unlawful refusal for purposes of attorney's fees.
  • A public officer who violates the public record law may be subject to a noncriminal infraction punishable by a fine up to $500.
  • A knowing violation of the public records law constitutes a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by possible criminal penalties of one year in prison, or $1,000 fine or both.
  • When a method for removal from office is not otherwise provided by the Florida Constitution or by law, the Governor may suspend an elected or appointed public officer who is indicted or informed against for any misdemeanor arising directly out of his or her official duties. If convicted, the officer may be removed from office by the Governor.

Contact Someone Who Can Answer Questions About the Sunshine Law and Public Records Law

Sunshine Law and Public Records Law - Contact Information

Contact Someone Who Can Answer Questions About the Uniform Special District Accountability Requirements Covered in this Chapter

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