Thursday, June 21, 2018
News Roundup

New Kenneth City committee may have run afoul of Sunshine Law

KENNETH CITY — Members of a committee appointed to suggest changes to this town's charter have not had their first scheduled meeting, but they may already have broken Florida's Sunshine Law.

The charter review committee's potential violations include emailing each other, holding an unannounced meeting at a local restaurant and failing to take minutes during that get-together. State law generally prohibits two or more members of an elected or appointed body from communicating about issues that could come before the group unless it is at an announced, public meeting. The group must also keep a record of what happened at those meetings.

Members of the group, which includes a former Kenneth City council member and a current council member's wife, deny breaking the law. But, they say, if they did violate the law, it was unintentional. The confab at Simply Delicious, 4601 66th St. N, was merely a session to allow the five committee members and two alternates to get to know each other and to set a meeting date, they said.

"We just met and introduced each other," former council member Wanda Dudley said. "We let Town Hall know what we were doing. … They did not publicize it. We did not talk about anything we would be voting on."

Dudley said the group not only talked about scheduling meetings, but also decided to have each member contact one Town Council member to discover what the elected officials had in mind for the committee to discuss. The committee members were to bring that report with them to the first official meeting this Thursday. They also discussed leadership of the group — Dudley and Julie Campbell, wife of council member Troy Campbell, said they did not want to lead the group. Another topic that came up, according to Dudley and other committee members, was the Sunshine Law and how not to run afoul of it.

Julie Campbell and David Veenstra could not be reached for comment. Committee member Lori DeLisle declined to comment. Karen Cassidy said she did not believe the group broke the law.

"We kind of talked about what in the first meeting we need to do because the town clerk needs an agenda," Cassidy said. "I think it would be a total stretch to say that we talked any business. ... I don't feel like we met. ... We clearly said that we were not meeting."

But former town attorney John Elias said he told the town that the Sunshine Law applies to the charter review committee. The get-together, he said, should likely have been publicized.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, agreed the group should not be meeting nor should they be emailing or telephoning each other about the committee's business unless at a publicly announced meeting. The Sunshine Law, she said, applies from the moment the group is appointed and violations can be punished even if they were unintentional.

The charter committee's problems began almost immediately.

The council selected members of the committee in early May to spend up to a year reviewing the town charter for possible changes. The charter is the town's constitution and sets out the framework for the way Kenneth City is run.

Town Clerk Sue Scrogham sent group members an email on May 11 congratulating them on their appointment and enclosing a list of the members and their email addresses "so that you can contact each other to set up your first meeting and select a chair person."

Julie Campbell sent the group an email the same day saying she was glad to be a part of the group, naming days she would be available to meet so "we can get the ball rolling."

Dudley responded that same night: "Are you free on Saturday, May 19th at 10:30 a.m. to meet at Panera to introduce each of ourselves and discuss our schedules and come up with a plan?"

Campbell suggested changing the meeting to May 20. She said the group needed an email address for one of the alternates: "It seems like email would be the easiest way to communicate amongst a group this size since I doubt we can all conference call from home."

Dudley sent the group another email on May 14: "I notified Town Hall of our meeting — it was to introduce ourselves, discuss schedules/when to meet and a way of work. If our meetings involve business they must be advertised and we are in the Sunshine.

Keep in mind, we need a chair, a co-chair and someone to take minutes."

The town never announced the meeting. Scrogham on Tuesday blamed the oversight on ignorance of the law. This is the first time, she said, that Kenneth City has dealt with this situation.

There is no set way that municipalities handle the transition from the appointment of a new committee to the first meeting. Pinellas Park, for example, sets out the first meeting in the resolution that creates the committee. Seminole has the city clerk call members to set the time, date and place for the first meeting. Both appoint staff members as liaisons with the committee as an additional protection against possible Sunshine violations.

Even if the group violated the law, it's unlikely anything will be done unless someone reports it, said Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for Pinellas-Pasco counties. The report would first go to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for investigation. The sheriff could refer a violation to the state attorney for prosecution. But that seldom happens, Bartlett said, because "most people know how that works."

But Kenneth City has had issues in the past. In the early to mid 1990s, deputies investigated rumors that some council members had violated the Sunshine Law by having an unannounced meeting. Six were charged with Sunshine Law violations.

Of those, one was cleared. Former Mayor Lester Eshleman and ex-council members Alice Kinney, Nancy Baker and Charles Knox were fined $150 in court costs. The judge withheld a formal finding of guilt. Harold Paxton maintained his innocence, pleaded no contest and paid $100 in court costs. Council member Carl Schleck died in a car crash just two days after having been charged.

Information from Times files was used in this report. Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.

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