Sunshine setting?

Sen. W.D. Childers (R-Pensacola) has introduced an amendment to the state's Sunshine Law to create a new exemption of the open-meetings rule to cover "imminent" litigation. Currently the law allows public officials to meet in secret to discuss only pending litigation -- meaning lawsuits that actually have been filed. The "imminent" rule -- the word is not defined in the bill -- would allow secret meetings for virtually any reason, according to Barbra Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, a press watchdog group.

The bill calls for the exemption to be "liberally construed," meaning that public officials could cite it any time they want to close a meeting to the public. Any complaints that a meeting was closed wrongly would be met with the claim that officials made "a good-faith attempt to comply" with the law; the bill says this shall be "a complete defense to any challenge." If the officials are found to have violated the open-meetings law as imagined by Childers' bill, they may be fined no more than $500. Says Petersen: "Why not simply repeal the Sunshine Law?"

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