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Open meeting violations alleged

Brooksville Housing Authority board member Paul Boston has accused his colleagues of excluding him from a crucial board meeting and violating the state's open meeting laws.

Boston said he was not told of a meeting on Nov. 6, hours after a federal grand jury handed down indictments against the authority's executive director, Betty Trent, and former project manager, Joe Ann Bennett.

He also said that a member of the public - community activist Richard Howell - was forced to leave a public meeting four days later. Neither of the meetings, Boston said, were adequately advertised, as is required by law.

Boston sent his complaints to the Brooksville City Council in an e-mail that he also plans to forward to the State Attorney's Office, he said.

His accusations against the authority board - which other members disputed - are part of a pattern of board members protecting Trent, said Boston, who added that he told the other members he planned to address complaints from residents of the authority's complex when he was appointed last year.

"I believe they have their own agenda," Boston said. "A lot of the board members have been there all the time these wrongdoings have been going on. For them to come out and declare (Trent) is innocent and for them to make moves for the public to believe the same: I think that's wrong."

The board did not exclude Boston, said Vice Chairman Allen Rhodes, but left a message on his cell phone that he apparently did not receive in time. The meeting was called almost as soon as the authority learned of the indictment, Rhodes said, "and we were all in a state of shock."

At that meeting the board decided to allow Trent to remain on vacation, using up days that she had built up over the course of the year, Rhodes said. He acknowledges that the board did not notify the public, but said that was justified because it was an "emergency, executive meeting."

For the same reason, he said, the board asked Howell to leave the meeting four days later, on Nov. 10.

"That, again, was an extension of the meeting on Monday (Nov. 6)," Rhodes said. "We were still dealing with problems created by the indictments. We were dealing with an executive directorship, which is a personnel meeting."

The 2005 Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual published by the First Amendment Foundation makes some allowances for private meetings to discuss pending legal matters.

But it mentions no exemptions for personnel matters, stating the subject of private meetings "shall be confined to settlement negotiations or strategy sessions related to litigation expenditures."

Also, none of that excuses the board for failing to provide notice of the meeting, said Barbara Petersen, president of the foundation. She added that if violations of the meeting law are determined to be unintentional, they can still result in fines against members, though that usually happens only if a member of the public challenges the action in court. If a judge rules the meeting should have been conducted in the sunshine, the actions of the meeting can be invalidated, she said.

Rhodes said the authority did not post a notice of the Nov. 10 meeting. However, Billye Fetrow, the current project manager, said a notice was placed on a bulletin board at the Housing Authority offices at the Hillside Estates apartment complex.

That may not be sufficient.

City Clerk Karen Phillips said the city has advised the board not only to post the meeting notice, but to fax it to local newspapers.

Nothing in the law requires that, Petersen said, but the law does say the public agency must provide "reasonable notice ... to anyone who might be affected by its actions."

Especially because Trent and Bennett have been accused of stealing public money, Petersen said, "I would argue that this is a much larger social issue that affects far more than just the neighborhood directly served."

Staff Writer Jonathan Abel contributed to this report. Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352)754-6116.

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