MADEIRA BEACH — The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office is investigating a possible Sunshine Law violation involving two City Commissioners and two Planning Board members who are now running for the commission and mayor.
Meanwhile, some of those under investigation reportedly want City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr. fired in a push to drastically change the way the city is operated.
The current political atmosphere is "terrible," according to Mayor Pat Shontz, and has severely impacted city employee morale.
"We have already lost our planning director. The finance director and human resources directors are thinking about leaving. W.D. knows he is going to get fired. If we lose them all, the city is going to be in a mess," said Shontz, who is not running for re-election.
The Sunshine Law investigation, which began late last summer, was triggered by reports of city officials meeting privately with about 30 residents to discuss concerns about the then-proposed city budget.
In attendance were Commissioners Nancy Oakley and Terry Lister, as well as Planning Board members Travis Palladeno and Robin Vander Velde.
Palladeno is now running for mayor and Vander Velde is unopposed for the commission seat now held by Steve Kochick, who is running instead for mayor.
"It is still in the investigative stage," Executive Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow confirmed last week.
He declined to discuss any specifics of the case, beyond confirming the alleged violations occurred at the July meeting.
Under the Florida Sunshine Law, both elected officials and people appointed to official boards can only discuss matters that would come before them for decision during publicly noticed meetings.
No public notice was given for the July meeting with residents.
All of the officials who attended the meeting deny any wrongdoing.
Oakley and Lister stressed that neither knew the other planned to attend and that whenever one of them spoke, the other left the room to avoid violating the Sunshine Law.
"When Nancy spoke I left room," Lister said, adding that even though he had been invited to attend, he was told not to come to any more of the meetings.
"There was nothing to it. Nothing happened. It was just the budget. I was under the impression the investigation was closed," Oakley said Monday.
"The investigation has nothing to do with me and Robin," Palladeno said, stressing that as planning board members they had no responsibility or decision-making power over the city budget.
Oakley confirmed additional private meetings about the budget and city politics were attended by Palladeno, Vander Velde and other "concerned residents." Lister apparently was not at those other meetings.
"We started talking about elections, who would run for office, and what they might do on the commission," she said.
Also attending many of those meetings were former City Manager Jim Madden and former Board of Adjustment Chairman Joe Jorgensen — both of whom are highly critical of Higginbotham's management of the city — as well as Tom Slack, a Palladeno supporter who recently made a YouTube video lampooning Kochick, Palladeno's rival mayoral candidate.
Higginbotham, who was contacted by both the Sheriff's Office and the State Attorney's Office during the investigation, said he had heard rumors that those attending the meetings "were after me and other employees."
He said he deliberately has not sought to confirm the rumors.
"It might happen, it might not," Oakley said Monday. She is still sharply critical of Higginbotham but declined to say how she would vote.
Vander Velde said she has had mixed relations with the city manager but has not made up her mind about Higginbotham's future.
"Certainly, there has not been one incident that tells me we have to get rid of this guy," Vander Velde said.
Lister and Kochick defend Higginbotham's performance as city manager.
"All this negativity is the problem with Madeira Beach. We need more harmony," said Palladeno.