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Ybor fire raises issue of sunshine

Did two City Council members working feverishly to save a fire-damaged building from destruction violate the state's open government laws?

Council members Linda Saul-Sena and Mary Alvarez say no.

"We were really careful about that," Alvarez said.

But the two spent much of the day Wednesday talking with an attorney, city officials, historic preservationists and others about ways to stop imminent demolition of a 90-year-old building in Ybor City.

According to Florida law, two or more members of a public body can't discuss issues that might come before them for a vote without notifying and opening the meeting to the public and keeping property records.

The law applies even to informal social events.

It's possible the Ybor City property could come before the City Council for a rezoning, historic landmark designation or grant funding.

"I can only assume nothing was discussed that's likely to come before them," said City Attorney David Smith, who said he usually advises "clients to avoid situations that can present the appearance of a problem."

Late Wednesday, Alvarez and Saul-Sena met with city staffers and others involved in determining the building's fate.

Saul-Sena said she talked to Smith via cell phone just before the meeting, and he reminded her of the state's laws.

"I said, 'David, I have been around a long time. I know what the rules are,' " Saul-Sena said.

The meeting had been going for about 15 minutes when a St. Petersburg Times reporter arrived, according to Cyndy Miller, director of the city's growth management and development services department.

Miller told the reporter to leave.

When he noted the presence of two council members made it an open meeting, Saul-Sena left.

Miller said nothing inappropriate was discussed in the first part of the meeting. After Saul-Sena left, Miller raised the possibility of using city grant money to repair the building, which would need approval of the City Council. Miller said she would not have discussed the grants if Saul-Sena had been there.

"It would have been a problem," Miller said. "I fully understand that."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

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