SEMINOLE — The spectacle of a council member and the city clerk snarling at each other during a public meeting a couple of weeks ago was unheard of for this usually sedate city.
The spat was merely a public display of a tiff that began behind the scenes and ended less than a week later with the resignation of Seminole City Clerk Ginger Stilton.
At issue: Council member Tom Barnhorn's demand that his council-related e-mails be kept private and his anger that Stilton had not done so.
Florida law requires that records pertaining to government business be public. But Barnhorn may not have violated the law by asking that his e-mails be kept private unless someone specifically asks for a copy, said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. That's because the law requires the documents be kept and made available upon request.
"This is not a technical violation," Petersen said.
However, she said, Barnhorn does have some problems.
"He doesn't understand, I think, the term 'confidentiality' when it pertains to a public record," she said. Confidential would indicate the records are never to be given out. Asking that they not be given out without a specific request is a different issue, she said.
In addition, Barnhorn may be violating city policy if Seminole usually makes all council e-mails and other documents available in readable files. To not have Barnhorn's there would indicate he's not doing anything and be misleading. The city, she said, should indicate on those files that Barnhorn has asked that his records be withheld pending a special request.
"He's got a public perception problem," Petersen said.
The issue that brought Barnhorn's privacy request to light involved a proposal to move Seminole elections from March to November. Barnhorn wanted Stilton to get him information on costs and ways to do so without changing the charter. Stilton had received the information and gave it to all council members, but had not credited Barnhorn with asking for it.
"I have on multiple occasion discussed with you that I did not want to have information I send to constituents, others, and you. When I wish to make a presentation or comment under new business I do not want that information shared with all," Barnhorn wrote in a Sept. 23 e-mail to Stilton.
The subject line of the e-mail reads: "Stop sharing My Communications and request with you are others unless they request."
Quotes from the e-mail have not been edited.
"I do not expect that I should have this conversation a fourth time," Barnhorn wrote. "Unless DIRECTED please do not share request, e-mails or other information with anyone that does not directly request that and if they do please advise me."
At times, Barnhorn seemed upset that Stilton had stolen his thunder.
"I do not appreciate you sending it to all council stating it was your idea to resurrect it," Barnhorn wrote.
He added, "My original intent in the request was so that I may have time to review the information before I spoke of it under new business and made a request to consider I hope that this transmittion does not spoil my presentation."
That night, the two snapped at each other during a council meeting in which Barnhorn criticized Stilton for passing on his e-mails. Stilton, in return, charged that Barnhorn had accused her of violating the Florida Public Records law.
Two days later, Barnhorn wrote another e-mail to City Manager Frank Edmunds criticizing Stilton and asking that Edmunds handle all his e-mail and mail from that time forward because Stilton "does not understand the meaning of confidentiality requests."
"This is an extraordinarily sad moment in our Council history. I am unaware of another time in our City's History when any City Clerk accosted, challenged or decided for what ever reason on their own what information, what tasks, or when confidentiality requests assigned by a Councilor should be completed or disregarded," Barnhorn wrote.
He noted that, although Stilton had given the other council members copies of the Sept. 23 e-mail, that after "realizing what the e-mail contained I believe all Councilors showed me the respect I am due by passing all copies directly to me. I will request from the Mayor that if the City Clerk can not show me the respect due an Elected Official and a repeat of this incident occurs she be removed from the Chamber. I will not go through that type of public challenge or embarrassment again."
Barnhorn wanted an apology from Stilton:
"When our Clerk next reports to you, please inform her I request a formal apology at our next Published, Televised Council Gathering and I wish it be included on the Agenda and posted in the minutes on our Website."
Stilton resigned without apologizing.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at (727) 893-8450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.