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Sunshine law violation by Hillsborough official alleged

TAMPA — An activist fighting a proposed transit tax referendum in Hillsborough County has accused the county attorney of violating the state's Sunshine Law in an e-mail.

David Caton said Tuesday that County Attorney Renee Lee illegally told one county commissioner the position of a fellow board member on an issue involving the proposed ballot language. Commissioners are expected to debate the matter today.

State law bars people who serve on the same governmental bodies from speaking privately about issues they expect to vote on. All discussions are supposed to take place at public meetings.

The law also prohibits anyone from serving as a conduit between members, passing information from one commissioner to another, in this case, and thus facilitating a conversation.

"The e-mail from Renee Lee makes it clear that the ballot language for the rail tax was being discussed behind closed doors in violation of Florida's open government sunshine statute and without the benefit of all commissioners," Caton said.

Caton's accusation came as Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan called for the resignations of Lee, County Administrator Pat Bean and internal performance auditor Jim Barnes, for what he has characterized as ongoing unprofessional behavior. Hagan received the Feb. 27 e-mail from Lee.

Commissioners are considering whether to ask voters if they support raising the sales tax for a new commuter rail system, expanded bus service and roadwork. Under the proposal, 75 percent of the money raised would go toward transit, the other 25 percent toward rail.

The board plans to discuss whether to include the split in the 75-word ballot language.

Besides Hagan, Lee sent an e-mail to several participants in the discussion, including Commissioner Mark Sharpe, Bean, two lawyers in her office and representatives of the city of Tampa. It reads: "I have heard from Commissioner (Rose) Ferlita today and she is NOT happy that the language does not include 75-25. She will address that on Wednesday so we need to be prepared."

Neither Lee nor Ferlita returned phone calls seeking comment.

Barbara Petersen, with the open government advocacy group First Amendment Foundation, said a past Florida attorney general's opinion on a similar point would appear to indicate that Lee's e-mail is problematic.

The opinion said it was not a violation, as long as the person does not act as a liaison for board members by circulating information and thoughts of individual councilmen to the rest.

Sharpe on Tuesday provided an e-mail he sent to Lee, cautioning her against conveying information between commissioners on pending votes, and he was concerned that it might violate the spirit of the sunshine law.

Lee had responded to him that she was not "carrying a message" for a commissioner, because Ferlita's view was common knowledge, but "I agree about the spirit, and you won't see that again."

Hagan said he was not aware that the e-mail was problematic. In fact, he passed on the e-mail to Caton. He agreed with Caton that all discussions about the specifics of the proposed ballot language should take place in public.

"I would assume that the county attorney knows the Sunshine Laws and regulations, and wouldn't send some stuff to me in violation of them," he said.

Sunshine law violation by Hillsborough official alleged 03/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 11:53pm]

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