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State rules Madeira officials didn't break Sunshine Law

MADEIRA BEACH — Four city officials did not violate the state's Sunshine Law when they attended a citizen meeting last July to discuss issues relating to the then-proposed city budget.

"The evidence does not support any intentional violation of the public meeting laws and no further investigation appears necessary," Executive Asst. State Atty. Doug Crow wrote last week in a two-page memo to State Attorney Bernie McCabe clearing the officials.

The investigation, which began last summer, involved two sitting commissioners and two planning board members.

Crow said the investigation was triggered "by information provided to the city manager that multiple, unadvertised closed door meetings were held between a group of private citizens, two of whom serve on an appointed board and two commissioners, primarily concerning the upcoming budget."

The four officials — City Commissioners Nancy Oakley and Terry Lister and Planning Board members Travis Palladeno and Robin Vander Velde — confirmed to the Times earlier in the week that they had attended the meetings but insisted they had not violated the law.

The investigation conducted by the Sheriff's Office found that only one meeting was attended by more than one sitting commissioner.

"Rumors of multiple such meetings were unfounded," Crow reported, adding that a rumored recording of the July meeting could not be substantiated.

Crow said attendance by two members of the Planning Board did not violate the Sunshine Law because that board only "makes recommendations to the City Commission but apparently has no other independent authority to take action … There was allegedly no business discussed that concerned the committee's public duties."

Lister and Oakley did not violate the Sunshine Law, Crow said, because each left the room when the other spoke or answered questions.

"The fact that each commissioner avoided exposure to the other's viewpoint by leaving the room when the other was speaking indicates there was no intent to violate the public meeting laws," Crow said. "There is no evidence of any direct or indirect communication between the two that would suggest an actual violation, intentional or otherwise."

The investigation also involved Indian Rocks Beach Commissioner Terry Hamilton Wollin who had contacted Lister and Madeira Beach Mayor Pat Shontz in an attempt to persuade them to approve a state grant for Fishbusterz, a commercial fish house and commercial dock facility. The grant was eventually approved by the commission.

Wollin was not acting in her official capacity or as an employee of Fishbusterz when she contacted the officials, nor did it "constitute an improper polling of their positions on the grant issue," according to Crow.

He emphasized in his memo that the Sunshine Law was not intended "to prevent contact or communication" between elected officials and constituents.

However, he also said "it would be difficult to rebut" that a potential Sunshine Law violation could occur at such private meetings involving more than one commissioner in attendance.

"It might be wise for the city to develop a clear policy on private meetings being attended by multiple public officials," he said.

State rules Madeira officials didn't break Sunshine Law 01/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 29, 2011 3:31am]
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