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Socializing in the Sunshine

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By Kellie Parkin

Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law applies to any gathering of two or more local or state government officials who sit on the same board.

Basically, officials are required to keep all meetings open and public. This way, the public can participate if they want to, public records can actually exist, and we as the public can have access to those records.

But here’s the thing: how is a community – especially one as small and close-knit as Cedar Key – supposed to actually function on a day-to-day basis with these Sunshine Laws in place?

How are people supposed to live their normal lives if their neighbor happens to serve on the same board as them?

What happens if two city commissioners bump into each other in the cheese isle at the Market? Do they have to ignore each other? Can one apologize for accidently ramming the other with his cart? Are they allowed to even speak?

When attending the same birthday party, or wedding, or funeral, or baby shower, does one ignore the other, pretend he or she doesn’t exist?

What about church? Once elected, should city commissioners and water board members just stop going to avoid each other all together?

What if, say, several public officials and their wives want to walk down the street after a public meeting and have dinner? This is a close community, after all, so these people are actually friends – many of them have known each other for decades, some their whole lives – and they want to eat at the same table. Can they do that?  

Yes, they can.

According to the office of Florida’s Attorney General, which maintains the website www.myflsunshine.com, members of the same public board are not prohibited under the Sunshine law from meeting together socially, provided that any matters which may come before the board are not discussed at such gatherings.

Three City Commissioners, the CRA Director and the City Attorney were accused of violating the Sunshine Law last week by having dinner together after the City and CRA meetings Thursday night. The accusation was made publicly during the Candidate Forum held in the Library’s upstairs meeting room on Friday.

Sorry folks, put the pitch forks away. No scandal here, not this time.

The Sunshine Law means that these officials can’t talk about anything that has to with the City or the CRA that might come before them for discussion or vote except in an advertised public meeting. The Sunshine Law does not mean they can’t have dinner together.

Interestingly enough, something quite remarkable happens at that dinner table. If you’ve ever been to a City meeting, or a CRA meeting since the members fill the same seats, you’ll know that these officials don’t always agree. And that’s actually giving them more credit than they might deserve. They often don’t agree.

But at the dinner table, they get along.

Seriously.

I’ve seen it myself – on many occasions. These are not backroom, private wheelings and dealings. For one thing, they all know better. And more importantly, there are so many other things to talk about.  These dinners are simply friends and acquaintances breaking bread together, enjoying one another’s company, and talking about everything from art and yoga to Spanish Mackerels and Bubble Buddies. Oh, and we talk about deer. 

There was some disbelief as this came up at the candidates forum that deer would be a recurring topic of conversation when the officials meet for dinner. I’d like to shed some light on this.

A little known secret: City Attorney David Coffey is a funny, funny man. Yes I know, he doesn’t even begin to let on to this fact in those city meetings. He’s a lawyer, what can I say? But get him out of that mode, and wow.

To hear him tell the story about hitting a deer on his way to Cedar Key one weekend – priceless. Well actually, it was the deer that hit him. Driver’s side door, 55 miles per hour.

The funny is not in the dead deer. I am not that heartless. The funny is the way he tells the story – preparing his boys who were with him not to worry if they happen to hit a deer, they will simply take it with them, harvest it, and get some good meat. All will be well. They will be macho. In reality, he was not macho. He was terrified.

He tells the story so well, with just the right amount of self-deprecating humor, that I have begged him to repeat it several times to the point that deer are a recurring theme at that Island Hotel dinner table, prompting the storytelling of a myriad of fantastical deer adventures.

David Coffey and I both have long commutes off island, so maybe that’s why we talk about the chance of hitting deer. Laughing about it seems the best coping method. But even when we’re not talking about those adorably cute roadside hazards, our table seems to be full of laughter almost constantly. And none of it, in violation of the Sunshine Law.

If you’re ever around, stop by the table and say hello. And be sure to share your deer tale.