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Pasco school officials' trip raises Sunshine law questions

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County School District leaders appear to have violated Florida's open meeting law in obtaining permission to send a team to a North Carolina education conference in July.

Assistant superintendent Amelia Larson received an invitation to the three-day event after the School Board's July 1 meeting, but saw that it began before the next meeting on July 22. Hoping to get support to send a team to the sessions on computerized instruction, she asked board members one-by-one.

"I called the board members before I did anything to see if that was okay," Larson said Friday. "All five of them said it was okay. "

She stressed that she did not ask them to approve the travel.

"I asked them if it was okay for me to move forward," Larson explained. "I let them know the approval would be on the 22nd. … We had very good intentions."

That's not the way state law says such decisions should be made.

"It's not only inappropriate, it may very well be a violation of the Sunshine law," Florida First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen said via email. "There are a couple Attorney General opinions on this issue."

Opinions from both 1975 and 1989 state that the staff of a government agency should not call the members of a board to ask for their positions on a specific matter that will come up for a vote at a public meeting.

"It might be noted that after all of the members of the commission have verbally indicated their position on a given matter, the director alone becomes privy to information denied to the general public, i.e., the preliminary decision of the commission," an assistant attorney general wrote in AGO 1975-59.

Florida law, chapter 286.011, makes clear that all official acts must be taken in public.

Discussion at the School Board's July 22 meeting highlighted members' discomfort with the roughly $9,000 expense.

Chairwoman Alison Crumbley said she believed the size of the traveling group seemed too large at eight. Board member Joanne Hurley criticized the administration for failing to include key information, such as the cost and the names of the people going.

Nonetheless, the board unanimously approved the item. The team of eight officials, including Larson, had left for the trip the day before.

Hurley said Friday she remained concerned about the amount, which she considered "excessive," and the limited details provided. At the same time, she said, she had fewer problems with being called in advance to seek her views.

"I don't think they were asking for a vote before the vote," Hurley said.

Board member Steve Luikart told Larson he would support the trip to Mooresville, N.C. On Friday, he said he will insist on a different process the next time the staff wants to travel.

"I'm disappointed we were backed into a corner," Luikart said. "Plan ahead."

Larson noted that the situation arose because the board earlier had moved its regularly scheduled meeting from July 15 to July 22. If it had not, she said, the item would have come up before the travel date.

She added that she provided board members as much detail about the conference as she could in advance.

"I am very transparent," Larson said. "If I messed up, I will take responsibility for it. By no means did we attempt to deceive anybody."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

Pasco school officials' trip raises Sunshine law questions 08/01/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 1, 2014 7:21pm]
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