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Hillsborough officials refer allegations of Sunshine Law violations to prosecutors

TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials have sent to prosecutors allegations of possible Sunshine Law violations by the board of the taxpayer-supported Carrollwood Cultural Center.

Acting County Administrator Michael Merrill referred the matter to State Attorney Mark Ober on Monday.

"It has been brought to my attention that possible violations of the Sunshine Law may have occurred among members of the Friends of the Carrollwood Cultural Center board," Merrill wrote.

Included with the letter was a report on the allegations from county Parks, Recreation And Conservation Director Mark Thornton, plus copies of e-mails among board members of the Friends.

The referral comes amid a simmering controversy over the cultural center's finances.

The center opened two years ago after the county spent $8 million renovating two churches to create it. The county also pays the Friends $380,000 a year — roughly half the center's budget — to manage the facility.

The center has run a deficit, leading to a highly charged discussion about possible layoffs.

On Tuesday night, center executive director Paul Berg said he identified enough savings for the center to end 2010 about $4,000 in the black with no layoffs.

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.

When private boards like the Friends take on government functions, Florida attorney general's opinions and case law say it is prudent to comply with the Sunshine Law, said Kenneth Tinkler, a Carlton Fields lawyer whose firm represents the Friends on a pro bono basis.

In recent weeks, the cultural center and its board have been engulfed by rumors, many focused on Berg.

In his report, Thornton said Berg and board treasurer Alan Preston gave him records indicating that board members had discussed Berg's future outside of their meetings.

According to his report:

• Board member John Miley e-mailed board president Jim Carver and others May 14 about an upcoming meeting. In the e-mail, Miley said he would make two motions, one to accept a cost-cutting recommendation from Berg and a second to set performance benchmarks for Berg.

The benchmarks, "any of which, if not achieved as specified, will provide cause for immediate termination of Paul Berg's employment," Miley wrote.

Four days later, the Friends' board meeting lasted barely five minutes and was adjourned amid protests that it had been scheduled for a room too small to hold the crowd, many of whom turned out to support Berg.

Afterward, Miley and Carver said the meeting had not been called to fire Berg, and Carver said Berg's job performance was satisfactory.

On Tuesday, Miley said his second motion was not about firing Berg but setting performance standards for him. Asked whether he thought he had done anything wrong sending the e-mail, Miley said, "I did not do anything that others over the previous two years had not done — in spades."

• Board member Lisa Smiler sent Carver an e-mail saying, "I just checked. Would only need to give 3 wks notice — not the 4 I think quoted to you." Smiler and Carver declined to comment Tuesday.

• Voice mails to Preston from Carver and board vice president Mindy Ambler said they wanted to discuss an upcoming board meeting. In her message, Ambler said she was calling from the car and was with her husband, state Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, according to the report. Preston did not return either call.

Mindy Ambler said the voice mail was not about an upcoming board meeting or anything else covered by the Sunshine Law.

In addition to the voice mails, Thornton received information that Carver called Preston and asked him about Miley's proposed motion. Preston said he wouldn't discuss it because it might come before the board.

Thornton also told Merrill that he spoke with Carver about a meeting that Carver and Mindy Ambler held with Rich Reidy, an aide to County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan.

"I informed him that this was more than likely a violation of the Sunshine Law," Thornton wrote. He added that he spoke to Reidy, who responded he didn't know the Friends were required to follow the Sunshine Law.

Ambler said she was not at the meeting with Reidy, nor was she at another meeting with commissioners mentioned in an attachment to Thornton's report.

"It really does concern me greatly that these things are said erroneously," she said.

On May 25, after Thornton's meeting with Berg and Preston, Tinkler reviewed the Sunshine Law with the Friends board.

Tuesday, Ambler said she thought the refresher would affect the way the board works.

"As a volunteer board, we all really strive to be responsible and prudent about the way we conduct business," she said.

Hillsborough officials refer allegations of Sunshine Law violations to prosecutors 06/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 1:17am]
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