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3 meetings tread around Sunshine law

Weeki Wachee city commissioners met three times in the past week, twice to discuss a controversial condemnation lawsuit that has generated $196,000 in legal fees and a substantial amount of public animosity.

Yet the city did not publicly advertise the meetings in local newspapers.

Instead, it posted public notices inside the Weeki Wachee Springs tourist attraction _ notices that could be seen only by the park's paying guests. It also taped notices to the park's administrative office, which is accessible to the public but which sits obscured behind a fence and a hedgerow and bears no sign whatsoever that it conducts city business.

As a result, only one member of the public attended any of the meetings, a Hernando County government attorney who heard of it from a lawyer with business before the commission.

The St. Petersburg Times, which has had a standing request with the Weeki Wachee city clerk to be notified about public meetings, received no notice of the meeting. "It slipped my mind," said Jennifer Card, the part-time clerk.

City attorney Joe Mason did not mention the meetings to Times reporters last week when they questioned him about the subjects that were eventually the topics of the meetings. He said the reporters didn't ask about meetings.

They proved to be significant.

In a meeting begun Wednesday and continued Monday, the City Commission voted to drop its $53-million condemnation lawsuit against Florida Water Services under the condition it be paid $125,000 toward its hefty legal bills.

In a meeting begun and concluded Thursday, the City Commission voted to authorize the construction of an environmental classroom on the Weeki Wachee River, a long-delayed project sought by the Hernando County School Board.

None of Weeki Wachee's city business is recorded on tape. And written minutes from the meetings were not available Tuesday. Card, who could not attend the meetings, was compiling the minutes of those meetings based on the notes left by the elected officials themselves.

The city's failure to do more to notify the public about its upcoming business has many concerned.

"That's kind of the problem with what's going on," said George Angeliadis, an attorney speaking on behalf of several new Weeki Wachee residents who recently registered to vote there in an effort to upset the city's political climate.

"You've got nine people in control of the city who are regulating some important issues. No, I don't think it's sufficient notice."

Hernando County commissioners, concerned about Weeki Wachee's practices in other areas, are seeking to have the city dissolved. Specifically, they are troubled by the financial headaches the city caused by the city's condemnation effort.

Members of Hernando County's state legislative delegation will consider that request today during a 2 p.m. meeting at the commission chambers in Brooksville.

Weeki Wachee was established in 1966 as a way to get the tourist attraction's name on road signs and maps.

Mason said the city has been announcing its public meetings the same way it has for 20 years. But until last summer, the city had done little to distinguish itself from the tourist attraction and its meetings were rarely noteworthy.

Mason acknowledged that there needs to be some city-related signage outside the park's administrative offices that would help people seeking contact with the city. But he said the city is complying with Open Meetings Law.

He said there are certain meeting topics _ such as the budget or condemnation matters _ that must be advertised in accordance with the state Sunshine Law. But he said a notice posted in a public place satisfies the law on most accounts, provided it is put up 24 hours ahead of the meeting.

Still, Barbara Petersen, president of the non-profit First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said the law demands that governments give "reasonable notice" about their upcoming meetings.

"It does not sound reasonable to me," Petersen said.

Card said notices were posted in advance of the meetings on Wednesday and Thursday. Mason said no notices were posted in advance of Monday's meeting because it wasn't a new meeting but a continuation of Wednesday's unfinished business.

The book that is considered the bible of open meetings law in the state _ the Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual _ says the state Attorney General suggests as a guideline that governments issue press releases and make phone calls to local members of the media about upcoming meetings.

In 1990, the attorney general issued an opinion saying that meetings are adjourned and reconvened later, the second meeting should be noticed as well.

Scott Guthman, manager of the Best Western Resort Weeki Wachee that sits across the street from the tourist attraction and who has been concerned about the city's mounting legal bills, said he had not heard about the meetings. Had he known, he might have attended.

Mason said the city would take steps in the future to notify the Times of upcoming meetings. But if state lawmakers listen to county commissioners today and dissolve the city, Weeki Wachee might have no more business to conduct.

_ Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.

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