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Sunshine law violation? Four Dunedin commissioners defend one-on-one briefings

DUNEDIN — Four members of the City Commission have united to defend the city against their fifth member's accusations that they and city staff have repeatedly violated Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

The accusations are coming from Commissioner Julie Scales, who says she disagrees with a 30-year-old Florida attorney general's opinion that city staffers can brief elected officials on agenda items before meetings.

Scales, a former attorney for Pinellas County government, believes the practice has led to backroom discussion, decision-making and votes on multi-million dollar projects and other issues that haven't been discussed publicly. She said she also believes those one-on-one meetings have led city staffers to tailor their recommendations to commissioners' wishes rather than relying on their own expert opinions and research.

"I think the ultimate goal is making sure our citizens know what we're doing, what's being discussed, what the decision process is," Scales told other commissioners during a "Sunshine Law" discussion at the commission meeting last week. "And I think all that needs to be transparent and free of conflict of interest."

Scales' accusations have incensed her four colleagues — Mayor Dave Eggers and Commissioners Julie Ward Bujalski, David Carson and Ron Barnette. They say a 63-page report of meeting minutes, e-mails, memos and case law compiled by City Manager Rob DiSpirito and City Attorney Tom Trask disproves her allegations.

DiSpirito and Trask presented the report to the City Commission on Thursday in response to concerns Scales raised at the Sept. 8 commission meeting.

At that meeting, Scales said she was casting the lone vote against the 2012 budget because several items, including utility rates and $500,000 earmarked to begin exploring plans for a new government center, were not discussed as individual agenda items during summer budget workshops.

Scales herself met one-on-one with city finance director Jeff Yates to go over computer-generated utility rate models the day before the final budget workshop. But she said she thought decisions had already been made by then.

Commissioner David Carson asked Trask and DiSpirito to compile a report to put the ongoing accusations "to rest."

In his presentation Thursday, Trask said his investigation found no violations of the Sunshine Law. Commissioners were given several weeks' notice of the opportunity to meet with Yates. Each commissioner's information was kept in a separate folder, and any staff members present never shared one commissioner's thoughts with another.

DiSpirito also provided budget workshop minutes showing that commissioners did publicly discuss utility rates, construction projects and other items.

Trask said it's acceptable and common for local government elected officials to meet with staff or the city manager, so long as those staffers don't pass along each commissioner's opinion to the others or schedule meetings in such a way to circumvent public discussion.

Scales responded that she is nonetheless more comfortable receiving staff presentations in public meetings, rather than via what she called a "new process" of one-on-one briefings. She also said the commission's practice of giving direction — but not actually voting — during workshops has left staffers "essentially reading tea leaves as to what they think direction is," Scales said. "That's not right."

Scales concluded by calling for workshops on how to give direction to staffers, priorities for the city's Penny for Pinellas fund, 2013 dredging projects and the proposed government center.

Her request that the commission revisit a civility measure adopted during an April retreat, however, ruffled the feathers of her colleagues, who said her past and present accusations have attacked the professionalism and integrity of DiSpirito and his staff.

Bujalski told DiSpirito she supports him "100 percent." She and the other commissioners rejected Scales' complaints about the one-on-one meetings with staff, saying they've met with staff for years to educate themselves about items on which they will later vote.

This is the third time the commission has discussed civility, she said.

"We agreed (during the retreat) to not make any innuendos of unprofessional behavior, and I think that just occurred," Bujalski said. "This isn't the first time it's happened."

Scales — who did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment — acknowledged in a past interview that she did not bring up her concerns at the final budget workshop on Aug. 29 because she thought there wasn't enough time "to have an appropriate discussion."

Eggers said Scales' accusation "throws out the impression that we are doing things in a sneaky fashion, and that's the last thing that this staff would put up with."

"Let's be cautious of words we use up here on the dais," Eggers said. "Also, just give the respect to others you are demanding in return. I think it just comes down to that simple concept."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Sunshine law violation? Four Dunedin commissioners defend one-on-one briefings 09/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 7:42pm]
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