Carrollwood Cultural Center board discusses allegations of Sunshine Law violations

The Carrollwood Cultural Center, ten years in the making, opened in February 2008 at a cost of $8 million to taxpayers.

CARRIE PRATT | Times (2007)

The Carrollwood Cultural Center, ten years in the making, opened in February 2008 at a cost of $8 million to taxpayers.

CARROLLWOOD — With Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators looking into allegations of Sunshine Law violations, the Friends of the Carrollwood Cultural Center met this week hoping to clear the air.

The goal of Tuesday night's meeting was to go over the allegations one by one, get clarity on what the board is required to do under Florida law and move on.

Such meetings are often known as "cure" meetings, because they are meant to correct a tainted process that took place before a governmental entity made a particular decision, such as awarding a bid or entering into an agreement.

In this case, however, the circumstances are a bit murky. To be sure, there are indications that some members of the Friends' board traded e-mails in April and May about the idea of shaking up the staff and cutting the budget.

But neither the firings nor the drastic budget reductions ever took place, so there's not the typical official action to be cured through the meeting, said Kenneth Tinkler, the board's attorney.

"The most that can be cured is the perception," he said.

Tinkler advised board members to tighten up their procedures for giving public notice of upcoming meetings. He also cautioned against engaging in e-mail discussions of upcoming board business and said third parties, such as staff members, cannot be used as conduits to carry messages between board members.

Several critics of the board, however, said Tuesday's meeting was not enough and suggested that unidentified board members should resign. The residents contended that the Friends have long known they are supposed to discuss their decisions only at properly advertised open meetings, and that the e-mails exchanged this spring have become a huge distraction.

"The board cannot say that they did not know the law well enough to follow it," said Libbie Jae, one of more than a half-dozen residents to speak at the meeting.

In June, Hillsborough County officials referred allegations of possible Sunshine Law violations by the cultural center's board to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

The referral was based on a county report summarizing the allegations and e-mails among board members about possible cost-cutting and personnel moves at the center.

Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law bans local elected officials from having private discussions with each other about matters they expect to vote on at their official meetings.

Florida attorney general's opinions and case law say it is prudent to comply with the Sunshine Law when private volunteer boards like the Friends take on government functions, like running a county-owned and publicly subsidized arts center.

The center opened two years ago at a cost of $8 million to taxpayers. The county also pays the Friends $380,000 a year — about half the center's budget — to operate the facility, pays for utilities and handles major maintenance. Despite that support, the nonprofit Friends group has run a deficit, leading to months of controversy about possible changes in leadership.

Since county officials referred the matter to prosecutors, FDLE investigators have contacted center executive director Paul Berg and begun an investigation, Berg said.

Also, two board members who each sent at least two e-mails that were referred by the county to prosecutors have resigned.

Former board member Lisa Smiler did not respond to requests for comment by press time, but said in an e-mail to board members that after reviewing the commitment needed "to maintain full participation on the (Friends) board, I have determined that I do not have the time available to devote to this worthy cultural effort."

Board president Jim Carver submitted his resignation July 29.

In his letter, he said the previous four months had been "challenging and at times very difficult." He said he had tried to bring the board together for a unified effort to run the center and boost its accounts.

Carver, who did not return a call for comment, went on to criticize Berg's financial performance, leadership style, record of community participation and staff relations. He also said Berg spread rumors.

"With a change at the helm, I do hope the board, staff and community can work together, be prudent and achieve the center's goals," Carver wrote.

Berg said he would not get into a "back and forth" with Carver.

"I wish Jim the best of luck and I thank him for all his service," Berg said. "He's completely entitled to his opinions."

About residents' suggestion that some board members resign, John Miley, who sent some of the e-mails referred to prosecutors, said he didn't do anything that others didn't do repeatedly and continuously for years. He is "not the least bit inclined" to act on those suggestions.

"I'm going to be the last person to resign," he said.

Carrollwood Cultural Center board discusses allegations of Sunshine Law violations 08/12/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 5:57pm]

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