BELLEAIR – A few issues raised at the February 20 town commission meeting begged for a review of Florida’s Sunshine Law, regarding public records, meetings, and private, often called “shade” meetings.
Because Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine law requires board and commission meetings to be open to the public, most take it for granted that all are. But there are exceptions.
Several Belleair residents in attendance found this out when they demanded the commission address what has been going on behind the scenes with petitions signed by 700 Belleair residents who support a referendum for a charter amendment to require land use and zoning changes be voted upon.
The Belleview Biltmore Hotel’s preservation was the impetus for the petitions, which circulated last spring.
David Ottinger, the town attorney, who filed the complaint in court to determine whether the petitions violated state law, fielded the questions.
Laurie Adams asked him, “I would like to know what intention and purpose you had in filing a law suit against Mildred Hathaway, a senior citizen?” Adams found it inconceivable that 700 people’s wishes could be ignored and she wanted to know how they could ultimately have a voice.
Ottinger said he was asked to determine if the petitions were valid as they proposed a “dilemma” for the town because it was suspected that the petitions were unlawful.
He added that filing the suit was a procedural matter done to satisfy due process and named Hathaway because it was she who presented the petitions at town hall to town clerk Donna Carlen.
Hathaway didn’t answer the court by retaining an attorney for her defense within a 20-day time period, so a decision was made by default judgment to drop the suit.
“Time ran out and there was no answer,” said Ottinger.
Although he said, “ Two attorneys had contacted me on the 20th day but neither were representing and defending Hathaway.”
Said Ottinger, “There will be a judgment soon and I think the petitions will be deemed unlawful as a referendum for any and every land use zoning change is not conducive to state law.”
The judgment by default was assigned to Judge Brant Downing and is expected soon.
Another resident, Rae Claire Johnson, asked the board when it voted on initiating the law suit because she has been in attendance at the meetings and could not recall the matter on an agenda or added to the agenda in discussion.
Carlen answered that the decision was made at a regular meeting in December, but didn’t have the exact date. Though the Sunshine law doesn’t require that tape recordings be made by a public board or commission, Belleair’s policy is to audio tape them.
On February 27, Carlen gave the exact date of when the law suit was agreed to be filed via e-mail, “The matter was discussed at the December 6 work session and Resolution No. 2005-40 was adopted at the December 20 regular meeting to file for the declaratory judgment.”
In regard to tape recording meetings, Carlen wrote, “Tapes of the meetings are kept for a period of three years, after they have been officially adopted, per records retention schedule outlined in Florida Statutes. We do provide copies of the tapes for a charge of 65 cents per tape.”
An alternative to obtaining an audiocassette from the town may lie in another part of the Sunshine Law. Private citizens can videotape public meetings, because public boards cannot prevent it. Videotaping has to be permitted as long as non-disruptive video recording equipment is used.
The Sunshine Law doesn't pertain to only announced meetings. The law applies to all discussions and deliberations as well as the formal action taken by a board or commission.
Carlen said, “The Sunshine Law requires that all meetings are held in the ‘Sunshine” except for meetings regarding litigations and all records are open to the public except for minutes of litigation meetings held ‘out of the Sunshine’. Once the litigations have been settled all records are open to the public.”
Ottinger explained at a meeting earlier this year that this exemption was the reason the commissioners had to refrain from speaking about the town’s negotiations with Progress Energy.
Upcoming in Belleair is the March 14 election for a seat on the commission. Virginia Donahue, Karla Rettstadt and Tom Shelly all vie for the spot.
Whoever wins will become immediately subject to another aspect of the Sunshine Law as newly elected members or appoiontees of boards and commissions are covered by a section that prohibits two or more members of the same board or commission to discuss topics that will be brought before them.
The newly elected commissioner will join the others in Belleair who have to monitor themselves and avoid speaking with fellow commission and board members at social functions or in private conversations about matters that may come before their respective boards or commission.
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