Do 2 Hillsborough commissioners at 1 fundraiser equal Sunshine trouble?

Commissioner Mariella Smith will join a Pat Kemp campaign event. Kemp’s opponent, Sandy Murman, cries foul.
This is the revised invitation to a fundraiser for Commissioner Pat Kemp with Commissioner Mariella Smith as special guest.
This is the revised invitation to a fundraiser for Commissioner Pat Kemp with Commissioner Mariella Smith as special guest. [ Pat Kemp campaign ]
Published Sept. 28, 2020|Updated Sept. 29, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp lined up a special guest for her virtual fundraiser Wednesday evening — another Hillsborough commissioner.

Commissioner Mariella Smith is scheduled to appear at a Zoom gathering that is billed as a virtual fundraiser with south county friends. Participants receive a link to attend in exchange for a contribution to Kemp’s campaign.

The joint appearance by two elected commissioners, however, raised questions about potentially skirting Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine law prohibiting elected officials from having private discussions of pending public business.

Smith and Kemp are both Democrats elected countywide. Kemp’s re-election is being challenged by Republican Commissioner Sandy Murman, who must leave her District 1 seat after 10 years because of term limits.

Initially, an invitation characterized the evening as a "virtual roundtable'' on south county "development.'' A revised invitation went out within a few hours last week removing both "roundtable'' and "development'' from the notice.

Portions of the south county are under a new development moratorium. Providing adequate transportation, schools, infrastructure, public safety and job opportunities in the fast-growing area is a frequent public policy debate on the commission and a primary issue in the Kemp-Murman race.

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Smith said she is scheduled to introduce Kemp, endorse her candidacy and then leave the meeting. Kemp said likewise and invited a Tampa Bay Times reporter to attend to ensure compliance with the Sunshine law.

Murman, whose campaign advertising attempts to portray Kemp as ethically challenged, seized on the commissioners' planned attendance at the fundraiser.

My opponent supports extreme policies that include flouting ethics and Sunshine rules which is yet another reason she is unfit to serve our community.” said Murman.

Kemp countered that Murman’s vitriol smacks of desperation.

"These conjured up attacks show she will not debate my record. They can’t attack me on my record. So now they’re just making up stuff. I think her record is not defensible with the public. Apparently, there is no limit to the depth they will plumb,'' Kemp said.

However, had the fundraiser gone off as a roundtable discussion of south county development, as originally advertised, it would have been problematic.

"Under these facts, the meeting would have to be noticed and open to the public — charging a fee to attend would be both inappropriate and a violation of the Sunshine Law,'' said Virginia Hamrick, staff counsel for the Florida First Amendment Foundation. “The new event is not subject to the Sunshine Law. If Commissioner Smith does in fact leave the virtual meeting, then there would be no opportunity for the two commissioners to discuss public business.”

Other south county community members will be participating, and that’s where the term "roundtable'' emerged, said Kemp. The invite was updated for clarity, she said, and it was assembled by a graphics assistant and “the Sunshine isn’t always as clear to the campaign people.”

"We are careful and transparent, I can assure you,'' said Kemp. “I certainly don’t want anybody to think like that.”

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