A SUNSHINE DEBATE: City leaders have differing opinion about possible Sunshine Law issue

Matt Algarin

A letter from the First Amendment Foundation says Destin’s economic planning needs to stay in the sunshine.

According to the letter from President Barbara Petersen, advisory boards and committees like a proposed city economic working group, fall under the purview of the Sunshine Law if they are “created by a public agency for the purpose of making recommendations to the public agency.”

“It may sound like we are splitting hairs, but the law applies to anyone acting on behalf of the city,” she said. “We’re not trying to rile things up, we’re just saying that they may be crossing the line.”

But the city and Destin Area Chamber of Commerce say an official group hasn’t even been formed yet so the points of the letter are moot.

“It does not apply to us,” Mayor Sam Seevers said of the letter.

Questions about the Sunshine Law were first brought up by Councilman Jim Bagby on Oct. 29. He suggested the city use a blue ribbon panel to form the policy, as opposed to the chamber-led group. At issue for Bagby is whether the group would be subject to Florida’s open meeting statutes and whether an initial planning meeting between City Manager Maryann Ustick, the chamber and the Economic Development Council means the group already exists.

“If they exist or not, I don’t know,” he said. “If they do exist and I find out that our staff is helping them, then I’m going to have a problem.”

Petersen sent the letter to the council after reading about the meeting and Sunshine Law concerns in a Nov. 24 edition of The Log.

“When they said they were going to develop a draft economic development plan outside of the Sunshine Law, that’s where I draw the line,” Bagby said, noting a “closed door” approach wasn’t proper. “If there is somebody that’s an elected official, or somebody drawing a city paycheck, then it should be in the Sunshine.”

Chamber President and CEO Shane Moody said the plan wouldn’t be drafted outside of the Sunshine Law because the chamber, not the city of Destin, would form the committee. He added, though, that any of the committee’s future meetings would be open to the public.

“The only people using the words ‘closed doors’ is Councilman Bagby and the Daily News,” Moody told The Log of a recent editorial that appears on Page A6 of this week’s Log. “This is our committee and the city never took a vote to give us authority. The purpose of this committee is to address economic development and make recommendations to the city, like we have done in the past.”

The chamber-led committee would be tasked with drafting the economic development plan, which would ultimately come back before city leaders for their approval. The plan would ideally work in conjunction with the state chamber’s “Six Pillars of Florida’s Future Economy,” which was designed to help diversify local economies.

While city officials are tight-lipped about the matter, Ustick said city attorney Jerry Miller is currently reviewing the letter from the First Amendment Foundation.

City leaders will once again discuss the economic development component of the comprehensive plan during a Feb. 19 meeting. The next step for Bagby will come during the Dec. 17 meeting, where he plans to make a motion to eliminate the possibility of a working group that could operate outside of the Sunshine Law.