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Topic: Economic Development - 07/02/14

I'm not prepared yet to say whether I favor or oppose an economic development council. Let's just say, I'm skeptical.

It has been reported (Judy Wilson, The Pelican, June 27, 2014) that some business people, "spearheaded" by the Chamber of Commerce, have already formed a group and they want official status and financial support from the city. That bothers me as does their claim that the council, also described as a task force, could operate outside the Sunshine Law. That claim bears further examination. See my note below.

Whenever the words economic and development are paired together, it raises flags. Economic development sounds like a good thing, but the real question is what it actually means and how it benefits the ordinary residents of Deerfield Beach.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm pro-business. I'm a free enterprise guy. I think the city should create, from a policy standpoint, a business-friendly environment with as few restrictions on business as possible. This doesn't mean, to me, that business is (or should be) a privileged class.

I can almost hear the arguments now. Economic development will widen the tax base and create jobs. We hear these claims every time someone proposes a major construction project like an office park. It's routine for the developer to tell us, his project will create "billions and billions" of new jobs. Just about everybody knows this is mostly BS. Nobody knows how many new jobs will be created in the long haul, what skill levels will be required, or how many will go to Deerfield residents. And, as far as I know, nobody ever checks to see how many jobs were actually created. Not that it matters.

Besides, while new jobs are always welcome, we don't really need them. It's not like Deerfield Beach is an isolated little town out in the boonies. We are smack-dab in the middle of a huge metropolitan area where job opportunities abound. I'd like to see hard data on how many residents actually work in Deerfield Beach and how many non-residents work in Deerfield Beach.

I have no objection to a privately-organized, privately-funded economic development council or task force. Just don't ask taxpayers to pay for it. To give it official status, I need to be convinced this is in the best interest of the citizens of this city.

Back, briefly, to the question of Sunshine. If this council attains some form of official status within the city government of Deerfield Beach, if commissioners appoint the members, if public funding is made available, if it requires the service of city employees, if it makes recommendations to the city commission regarding policy, then it must be required to conduct its meetings openly; and all its records and discussions made public. Based on Ms. Wilson's article (assuming it's accurate), it does not look like this is quite what the proponents have in mind.


The Sunshine Law, Fla. Stat. 286.011, provides in part: "All meetings . . . of any county, municipal corporation, or political subdivision . . . at which official acts are to be taken are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times . . . . The minutes of a meeting of any such board or commission . . . shall be promptly recorded, and such records shall be open to public inspection." The Attorney General's Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual further explains: "The Sunshine Law is equally applicable to elected and appointed boards or commissions [citing AGO 73-223]."

Whether so-called advisory committees fall under the Sunshine Law is a testy question and has been the issue in a number of court cases and AGOs (Attorney General's Opinions). If the board has been delegated decision-making authority, it is clearly subject to 286.011. If the purpose of the beard is solely investigative, fact-finding, or information-gathering, it is not. A closer case is when the board serves as the "alter ego" of the commission, making policy recommendations the commission may adopt. See, e.g., Town of Palm Beach v. Gradison, 296 So. 2d 473 (Fla. 1974) (cited in the Sunshine Manual). In this case, a citizen planning committee appointed by the town council to assist in revision of zoning ordinances was found to be subject to 286.011. The state supreme court concluded that the committee served as the alter ego of the council in making tentative decisions, and that "any committee established by the Town Council to act in any type of advisory capacity would be subject to the provisions of the government in the sunshine law." Id. at 476.

However, in her article, Ms. Wilson wrote: "It [the economic development council] is not hindered by the Florida Sunshine Law which prevents elected officials from having private discussions. Members of an economic council can have confidential discussions conversations about property, funding opportunities, incentives and other factors investors need to consider."

If that statement is correct (no authority cited), then the issue shifts to whether Deerfield Beach wants a "secret committee" operating within the orbit of city government and using city funds "to vet issues and to make recommendations" concerning economic development or any other city matter.