A state investigation into a private poolside meeting between three Hernando County Planning and Zoning Board members and a state representative ended quickly Thursday when the three were charged with violating the state's open meetings law and assessed $50 in fines and costs. Board members Virginia Brown-Waite, Robert Bubb and Oscar Zullo appeared before Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink Jr. on Thursday afternoon to be formally charged with violating the state's open meetings law, commonly known as the Sunshine Law.
Each of the three immediately pleaded no contest to the non-criminal infraction and were fined $25 and assessed $25 in court costs.
The charges were the result of a three-month investigation by the state attorney's office into a private meeting between the board members and state Rep. Chuck Smith, D-Brooksville.
The poolside meeting took place on Oct. 12 at the Weeki Wachee Holiday Inn, where the four discussed state regulation of hazardous-waste burning in light of Florida Mining & Materials Corp.'s request to burn hazardous wastes in cement kilns north of Brooksville.
The meeting took place just three days after the Planning and Zoning Board voted to ask the county's staff to investigate ways that the county could regulate Florida Mining's proposed activities.
On Thursday, the three Zoning Board members made no statements before Tombrink imposed the fines. After their brief court appearance, Zullo and Bubb refused to comment.
Brown-Waite said she still did not believe that the three violated any laws by meeting to discuss the hazardous-waste issue, but that they all felt it was in their best interest to enter the pleas and put the matter behind them.
"I don't believe that any of the Planning and Zoning members thought that this was against the law," Brown-Waite said. "It was right out in the open, and we all thought it was a public meeting."
Assistant State Attorney Jim McCune said that Smith was not charged because he is not a member of the same governing body as the other three and because they uncovered evidence that Smith was not aware that the Planning and Zoning Board had voted to look into hazardous-waste regulations.
McCune said that because Smith was not culpable, investigators did not have to concern themselves with the fact that the Florida Legislature had specifically exempted its members from the Sunshine Law.
But Brown-Waite said she didn't think it fair that she and the other two Planning and Zoning Board members were brought before the court without Smith.
"I think its a great travesty," Brown-Waite said. "I mean, this is a man who wrote the law."
Investigative notes contained in the case file show that McCune and investigator Ralph Decker checked Smith's personal and campaign finances to determine whether he had any personal stake in Florida Mining. The investigation turned up no connections, but McCune said they looked because they wanted to determine a motive for the secret meeting.
McCune said investigators ultimately decided there was no motive other than a desire on the part of all the participants to talk about hazardous-waste burning.
Therefore, the three were charged with the non-criminal violation of the law rather than a more serious misdemeanor criminal charge.
Originally, the investigation, which was triggered by news reports of the meeting, centered on a telephone conversation Zullo said occurred between him and Brown-Waite two days before the Oct. 9 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Board. Zullo said Brown-Waite called him at home to ask for his support of her request for a study of hazardous-waste burning. Such a request also would constitute a violation of the Sunshine Law, McCune said.
Investigators worked to verify the telephone conversation, but could not without a voluntary statement from Brown-Waite. She declined to give a voluntary statement without a promise of some immunity from prosecution.
McCune said he agreed to take the $25 fine instead of asking for up to $500 in fines because the Planning and Zoning members are volunteers and had nothing to gain from the meeting.
"They are volunteer servants at sacrifice to the community for the benefit of us all. These are not people who need to be hammered," McCune said. "But when they accept that responsibility, they have that obligation to let the public know what they're doing. To let the public participate in the process and in the deliberations and not just be present for decisions.
"In this instance, that obligation was either misunderstood, ignored or forgotten."