Based on COVID-19 Emergency, Governor temporarily suspends certain Sunshine Law requirements, paving the way for local government meetings to be held electronically

 

On March 20, 2020 Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order #20-69, which temporarily suspends the Sunshine Law requirement that a quorum of a governmental body be physically present at a public meeting. In doing so, the Governor removed a legal obstacle that has until now prevented local government boards from holding their meetings telephonically or by using other electronic means.

Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law is intended to promote transparency in local government by ensuring that members of the public have full access to all public decision-making proceedings. To achieve this aim, Section 286.011(1), Florida Statutes, provides that all local government board meetings in which official action will be taken must be open to the public at all times. Any formal action taken by a public board at a meeting that does not meet these requirements will be void and have no legal effect.

Although the Sunshine Law does not expressly prohibit local government board members from attending public meetings electronically, the Attorney General has consistently interpreted the above statute to mean that members of a public board must be physically present in order to establish a quorum.  It has further opined that so long as a quorum is physically present, a board member may participate in a public board meeting by telephone or other electronic means only in extraordinary circumstances.

Executive Order #20-69 suspends requirements that a quorum of a public body must be physically present and meet at a specific public place in order for their actions to be binding. Instead, it allows a local government to use telephonic and videoconference systems to hold meetings, provided certain statutory requirements are met.   Without these restrictions, local government boards will now be able to hold virtual public meetings in order to conduct important public business when necessary.  All other requirements of the Florida Constitution and the Sunshine Law remain in full force and effect.  Executive Order #20-69 will expire upon termination of Florida’s state of emergency due to COVID-19.

Click here to view Executive Order #20-69.

If you have any questions or would like assistance in drafting an administrative policy that establishes uniform rules governing electronic attendance and participation at public meetings during the current state of emergency, please contact us.  If you are a local government and have questions, please contact James W. Linn at jlinn@llw-law.com or at 850-222-5702.  If you are a special district and have questions, please contact Terry E. Lewis at tlewis@llw-law.com or at 561-640-0820.