A recent lawsuit filed against the City of Miami (the “City”) brings to light the importance of correctly determining whether a meeting must be made open to the public under Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law (“Florida’s Sunshine Law”).
The lawsuit was filed on September 23, 2013 by Stephen J. Kneapler (the “plaintiff”) in his individual capacity as a resident of the City. The plaintiff was a member of a selection committee that was created to review bids submitted pursuant to a Request for Proposals (the “RFP”) for the development of waterfront land located in the City.
According to the complaint, after receiving two bids in response to the RFP, the City scheduled a public meeting to hear oral presentations from the bidders. However, the City subsequently rescheduled the meeting for an earlier date and time without notice to the public. In addition to failing to provide proper public notice of the meeting, the complaint also alleges that the City refused access to the media and members of the public at the meeting, and therefore, violated the public meeting requirement contained in Florida’s Sunshine Law.
At the meeting, the Assistant City Attorney announced that the meeting was being held pursuant to an exception to Florida’s Sunshine Law which permits meetings to be closed where only members of the selection committee and the bidders are present. The complaint alleges that this exception did not apply because individuals who were not members of the selection committee were allowed to attend the meeting, including the Assistant City Attorney. The complaint seeks to cancel the contract awarded to the winning bidder and to require the City to re-bid the RFP in compliance with Florida law, in part, due to the City’s violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law.
Pursuant to Florida Statutes § 286.011, all meetings of any governmental body where official acts will be taken must be made open to the public at all times and reasonable notice of the meeting must be provided. There are certain exceptions to this general requirement, but the exceptions are narrowly construed. The exemption at issue in the lawsuit discussed above comes from Florida Statutes § 286.0113(2). This exception applies where the meeting will involve negotiations with, or oral presentations from, a bidder for a competitive solicitation, such as the City’s RFP. Also exempt under this exception are meetings where the selection committee convenes to discuss negotiation strategies related to the competitive solicitation. However, as alleged in the complaint, this exemption only applies where attendance at the meeting is limited exclusively to bidders and members of the selection committee.
There are several other exceptions to the public meeting requirement which can be found in various chapters of the Florida Statutes. For example, exceptions to the public meeting requirement exist for certain meetings involving child abuse, student expulsion, disciplinary actions taken by hospitals or surgical centers, confidential security system plans, and active criminal intelligence or investigative information. This list is not exhaustive, and each exception has specific statutory requirements or conditions that must be met in order for the exception to apply. When evaluating whether an exception to the public meeting requirement applies, it is important to remember that there is a strong presumption in Florida in favor of providing public access to government meetings and records, so any exceptions to Florida’s Sunshine Law are to be narrowly interpreted.
The Office of the Florida Attorney General publishes a comprehensive manual that discusses the requirements and exceptions to Florida’s Sunshine Law. The manual contains a specific chapter that discusses all of the exceptions to the public meeting requirement in more detail, along with the statutory support for each exception, and can be viewed online at: http://www.myflsunshine.com/sun.nsf/manual/e0e4bab3dc07f363852566f30058fa9f
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