Florida Special District Handbook Online:
Sunshine Law and Public Records Law

Sunshine Law (Open Meetings)

Special district governing boards must comply with Florida's Sunshine Law. The Sunshine Law 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. The Sunshine Law 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. Members of a board may not conduct private discussions about board business via email, telephone, text messaging, Facebook or any other form of communication. Special districts are also subject to additional public meeting and notice requirements as outlined below.

Public Notice Requirements

Sunshine Law Meeting Notice Requirements

The Sunshine Law requires that boards provide reasonable public notice of their meetings. Section 286.0105, Florida Statutes, also requires that the notice include 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).

Notice for a Cancelled Meeting

If a special district needs to cancel a previously advertised meeting, 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 the special districts official website.
  • Post a cancellation notice on a bulletin board at the special district's official headquarters.
  • Post a cancellation notice on the door to the meeting room.

If a future meeting must be canceled, and the reasons are known during a prior public meeting, the reasons must be discussed at that meeting.

Uniform Special District Accountability Act Regular Meeting Notice Requirements - Schedule

The Uniform Special District Accountability Act, requires each special district's governing body to:

  • File quarterly, semiannually, or annually a schedule of its regular meetings that includes the date, time, and location with the local governing authority or authorities.
  • Publish the schedule of regular meetings in the legal notices and classified advertisements section of a newspaper that meets the following criteria:
    • It is of general or paid circulation in the county or counties in which the special district is located.
    • It is a community newspaper of general interest and readership, as opposed to limited subject matter.
    • It 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 Following Meeting Materials on the Special District's Official Website

  • The schedule of regular meetings.
  • The following items, at least seven days before each meeting or workshop, and maintained on the website for at least one year:
    • The agenda of the event.
    • Any meeting materials that are available in electronic format, excluding confidential and exempt information.

Additional Meeting Notice Requirements for Independent Special Districts - Any Meeting Other Than a Regular Meeting

The special district governing body must advertise the day, time, place, and purpose of any meeting, other than a regular meeting or any recessed and reconvened meeting of the governing body, at least seven days before such meeting. The advertisement must be published in the same way as the meeting schedule, unless a bona fide emergency exists.

If a bona fide emergency exists, reasonable notice must be provided. The governing body must subsequently ratify the meeting. A special district may not approve its annual budget at an emergency meeting.

Additional Meeting Notice Information for Water Management Districts

Water management districts may provide reasonable notice (no less than seven days) of public meetings held to evaluate responses to solicitations issued by publication in a newspaper of general paid circulation in:

  • the county where the principal office of the water management district is located, or,
  • the county or counties where the public work will be performed

Administrative Procedures Act Meeting Requirements

The following special districts should consult with their legal counsel to determine whether additional meeting requirements are applicable under the Administrative Procedures Act (Chapter 120, Florida Statutes):

  1. Regional Water Supply Authorities.
  2. Multicounty special districts when a majority of its governing board is comprised of nonelected persons.
  3. Special districts described in Chapter 163, Florida Statutes, including but not limited to:
    1. Special districts established by interlocal agreement in which a state agency or any type of special district mentioned 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.

Location of Meetings

The Sunshine Law states that public meetings must be held in a facility that does not restrict access or discriminate based on sex, age, race, creed, color, origin, or economic status.

In addition, the Uniform Special District Accountability Act provides that a special district governing body must hold meetings in:

  • 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.

Minutes

The Sunshine Law requires that government bodies promptly record minutes of their public meetings; however, an electronic recording or written transcript is not required. The minutes must be available for public inspection.

Public Participation

A 2013 law requires, subject to listed exemptions, that boards provide 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. The new law 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.

Sunshine Law Exemptions

In the absence of legislative exemption, the Sunshine Law applies to all board member discussions about board business. Exemptions of particular note 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 that specific statutory conditions are strictly complied with.
  • 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.

Penalties for Sunshine Law Violations

Noncriminal Infraction

A public officer who violates the Sunshine Law may be subject to a noncriminal infraction punishable by a fine up to $500.

Criminal Penalty

A knowing violation is a second degree misdemeanor, punishable by a prison term up to 60 days and/or a fine up to $500.

Civil Action

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.

Removal From Office

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 Records Law

Requirements

Special districts along with state agencies, municipalities, and many 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 in connection with the transaction of official business by an agency (see Chapter 119, Florida Statutes, Public 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.

Examples of public records include:

  • Correspondence
  • Photographs and maps
  • Emails and text messages
  • Facebook blogs
  • Tape recordings of board meetings
  • Employment applications, evaluations, and disciplinary records

There is no "unfinished business" exception to the Public Records Law. If the purpose of a document prepared in connection with 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 in order 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 to above does not permit agencies to add their own conditions before review will be permitted, 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 district s 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

Civil Action

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.

Noncriminal Infraction

A public officer who violates the public record law may be subject to a noncriminal infraction punishable by a fine up to $500.

Criminal Penalty

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.

Removal From Office

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

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

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