OPEN MEETINGS LAW
Florida’s “Government-in-the Sunshine Law,” also known as the “Sunshine Law” has two primary areas:
- Public records law, Chapter 119, F.S., providing the public the right to access, inspect and copy public records. (Please see separate Frequently Asked Questions on public records.)
- Public meetings law, Section 286.011, F.S., providing the public a right to have prior notice regarding and to attend “meetings of any board or commission of any state agency.” The Sunshine Law requirements apply to all state universities in the State of Florida.
Any time that two (2) or more members of a Sunshine committee or board communicate about a matter that is or may come before that committee or board for consideration or action, the meeting must be held in the Sunshine and is subject to Sunshine Law requirements.
“Meetings” include any workshops, telephone conversations, written electronic communications (such as emailing or texting), social gatherings, or other interactions where information related to matters that are or may come before the committee is exchanged.
OPEN MEETINGS AT FIU
Most meetings at FIU are not subject to the Sunshine Law. (The law does not ordinarily apply to staff committees or meetings.)
It is the nature of the acts performed by the committee (not the make-up of the committee) that determines whether a meeting must be conducted in the Sunshine.
Examples of meetings that must be conducted in the Sunshine include:
- Meetings of the FIU Board of Trustees and its committees;
- Meetings of the Board of Directors of the FIU Foundation, Inc., and the University’s other direct-support organizations, and meetings of their respective committees;
- Meetings of the FIU faculty practice plan;
- Meetings of Employment Search and Screen Committees engaged in the hiring process;
- Meetings of Purchasing Evaluation Committees; and
- Collective bargaining negotiations conducted on behalf of the Board of Trustees.
Meetings of faculty or staff are generally not subject to the Sunshine law. Florida courts and the Florida Attorney General’s Office have repeatedly concluded that the Sunshine Law does not apply to staff meetings that only involve fact-gathering, reporting or general consultation functions. The majority of meetings that FIU faculty or staff attends in performance of their job duties fall within this category.
Courts have recognized that “[i]t would be unrealistic, indeed intolerable, to require of [staff] that every meeting, every contact, and every discussion with anyone from whom they would seek counsel or consultation to assist in acquiring the necessary information, data, or intelligence needed to advise or guide . . . be a public meeting within the disciplines of the Sunshine Law.”
Occasionally, representatives of the media or the general public may ask to attend meetings which are not Sunshine meetings and are therefore not open to the public. In such cases, FIU’s Offices of Media Relations and/or General Counsel should be notified to permit coordination of an appropriate response to the requestor.
If a committee is charged only with a fact-finding role of gathering, reporting or exchanging information and is not exercising delegated decision-making authority from a Sunshine body, then such a committee is not subject to the Sunshine Law. However, if at any point in time a fact-finding or information-gathering committee is charged with delegated authority or decision-making authority, then such a committee will be subject to the Sunshine Law.
OPEN MEETING PROCEDURES
When scheduling a covered meeting, please note the following requirements:
- Reasonable prior notice of the public meeting must be provided and posted.
- The meeting must be open to the public.
- The meeting must be held in a location accessible to the public.
- Minutes must be taken to reflect what occurred at the meeting.
Notice must be sufficient to provide the public and/or media advance notice of the information to be discussed. Except in the cases of emergency or special meetings, a general rule of thumb is that the notice should be posted at least seven (7) calendar days before the meeting. Emergency sessions should be afforded the most appropriate and effective notice under the circumstances. At least 24 hours reasonable notice to the public is a good rule of thumb for special meetings.
The “type” of notice that must be given varies depending upon the facts of the situation. In some circumstances, posting the notice on bulletin boards or other generally viewed areas (e.g., website) is sufficient. In others, posting the notice in a newspaper may be appropriate. A sample Sunshine meeting notice form can be found on the OGC webpage.
Historically in Florida, the public did not have the right to participate in Sunshine meetings. Florida law changed in 2013 and individuals now have a right to be heard on propositions before a board, consistent with the procedure of the board on such matters.
The body’s Chair, at his/her discretion, may permit members of the public to address the body even if not required. If the Chair allows public comment, s/he may limit the number of those that may address the body and place time limits on how long a member of the public may speak.
Some special procedures include the following:
- Minutes must be taken;
- The minutes must reflect the outcome of the voting.
- No secret ballots may be used. Voting may be accomplished by a show of hands, by expressing “yea” or “nay” or by a role call;
- All Committee members must vote unless the person declares a conflict of interest recognized under the Florida Code of Ethics.
No, there is only an obligation to maintain accurate minutes of open meetings.
- The Sunshine law does not prohibit interactions by members of a Sunshine body from interacting outside of the Sunshine meetings.
- For example, two or more members of a Sunshine body may meet socially or be involved in other civic or volunteer activities.
- In these cases, the Sunshine law is only violated if the members of the Sunshine body discuss information on matters on which the covered entity may take action on in the future.
Yes, possible penalties include the following:
- Second degree misdemeanor for a knowing violation of the Sunshine Law;
- Removal from position;
- Fines of up to $500;
- Reasonable attorney’s fees;
- Declaratory and injunctive relief; and
- Any action taken by a Committee at a non-compliant meeting may be declared invalid.
Please contact FIU’s Office of the General Counsel at (305) 348-2103.