Constitution panel wrestles with Sunshine Law

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A panel of the state Constitution Revision Commission deferred a decision Wednesday on how to follow open-government laws as commissioners undertake the once-every-20-years process of recommending changes to the Florida Constitution.

At the same time, county supervisors of elections asked the commission to limit the number of amendments it puts before voters to avoid a long ballot in November 2018.

The debate over the commission's rules Wednesday came amid weeks of public hearings aimed at getting suggestions from voters about how they would like to see the Constitution altered. The rules would govern how the commission conducts business once members begin in earnest the work of writing proposals.

But the discussions are already proving to be a harder slog than some commissioners had anticipated. By the end of the five-hour meeting Wednesday, members of the so-called working group on the rules had made it roughly a third of the way through a draft of the rulebook, making another meeting necessary.

Perhaps the highest-profile issue taken up Wednesday was how far to go in following the state's open-meetings laws. Some commission members are hesitant about a proposal that would bar two members from privately discussing commission business, a standard that applies to many government boards across the state but not the Legislature.

Supporters, like Roberto Martinez, an attorney who worked on a similar commission dealing with tax and budget issues a decade ago, argued that the constitution panel should follow the state's widely admired Sunshine Law.

"For us to make an exception for this very important commission ... I think it would be anathema to the traditions of our state," said Martinez, who spearheaded the push for a stronger open-records rule.

Other members of the panel were more cautious. Some questioned whether the standard could be too far-reaching if it weren't limited to proposals that have already been filed by commissioners --- meaning that discussion of any issue related to the Constitution could be barred.

Brecht Heuchan, a Tallahassee GOP consultant close to Gov. Rick Scott, said he would like to preserve the possibility of conversations with other commissioners who have special knowledge in certain fields.

"I'm going to be against your proposal if it prohibits me (from) being smarter about things I don't know about," he told Martinez.

And Timothy Cerio, a former general counsel to Scott who has taken the lead on rules issues, suggested that following a tougher standard could change how commissioners --- some of whom support a stronger rule --- are already acting.

"But they have also, because we haven't adopted rules yet, they've had a lot of questions answered, they've had a lot of comment that was outside the Sunshine, and that's going to stop," he said.

Ultimately, members decided to hold off on a decision and wait for a written proposal by the commission's staff incorporating some of the ideas floated at the meeting.

Other issues also cropped up, some of which showed rifts that could form between members appointed by Scott; House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes; Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart; and Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. Attorney General Pam Bondi is automatically on the panel because of her position.

The group adopted, on a divided vote, a recommendation requiring that a committee that will set the agenda for commission meetings include two members each from the lists of Scott, Corcoran, Negron and Labarga's appointments. Bondi would also sit on the committee.

Also on Wednesday, the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections urged members to avoid putting too many ideas before voters in November 2018. Each amendment proposed by the commission will have to get the support of 60 percent of voters to take effect.

In a letter to the commission, association President Chris Chambless raised the specter of the 2012 elections, which featured a slate of constitutional amendments, mostly proposed by the Legislature, that were blamed for helping create long lines at some polling places.

"While we recognize and applaud the immense duty and responsibility of the commission's purpose of reviewing Florida's Constitution and proposing changes for voter consideration, we urge you to take into strong consideration the overall length of the ballot when considering the number of amendments to be placed on the ballot," Chambless wrote.