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House panel backs private meetings of local officials

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In what would be a substantial change to the state's Sunshine Law, a House committee Monday approved a bill that would allow private one-on-one meetings of local elected officials.

Currently, members of city commissions, county commissions and other local boards are barred from holding discussions without providing public notice of the meetings.

But the House Government Accountability Committee on Monday approved a bill (HB 843) that would allow two members of boards to meet privately and discuss policy issues, though they could not take formal actions or discuss issues such as contracts with private vendors.

Bill sponsor Byron Donalds, R-Naples, said allowing such meetings would improve public policy.

"I recognize that this is an issue that speaks to the very heart of how local government operates," Donalds said. "But we have to ask ourselves one simple question: Are the members of local government, are they responsible for the best policy possible or maximum transparency? In my opinion, they are responsible for the best public policy for their local citizens."

The Florida League of Cities and Florida Association of Counties indicated support for the bill during Monday's meeting, but the measure is opposed by the First Amendment Foundation.

The bill is ready to go to the House floor, but a Senate version (SB 1004) has not been heard in committees.