When Caryville Town Council met last Tuesday, Town Attorney Jerry Miller called Washington County News' coverage of votes taken in the board's March 7 workshop in apparent violation of Florida's Sunshine Law, "unfortunate."
Miller assured council members they had done nothing illegal.
Only, according to Florida Statute 286.0114, it appears they did.
Florida Statute 286.0114 mandates: "Members of the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard on a proposition before a board or commission."
Not once during the workshop in which the votes in question were taken, did Chairman Millard French open the floor for public input. [Click here to listen to that workshop in its entirety: http://www.chipleypaper.com/videos/85262534-AD93-45EA-8421-EDA12966448A/Caryville-residents-deserve-some-sunshine]
Councilmember Henry Chambers made a motion to appoint Becky Pate as head of the Worm Fiddling Committee and then another motion to purchase new software for the clerk’s computer at the cost of $400. Both motions were voted on and approved without any effort to gain public opinion.
In all fairness, the board rectified the matter following our coverage of the votes, choosing to take the votes again in the March 14 regular session, during which Chairman French offered opportunity for the public to speak.
The action came after a statement read by Town Clerk Suzanne Floyd on behalf of Miller, who was unable to attend due to illness: "Council, at your workshop, you adopted two motions. The motions made and adopted at the workshop are not legally binding," Miller advised. "If you desire that they become final actions and effective, you may pass those motions tonight at regular session…"
This isn't the first time Caryville Town Council has apparently run afoul of the Sunshine Law.
Two documented examples include meetings held Feb. 18, 2015 and Feb. 24, 2015 - neither of which were noticed to the public or to the paper of record.
Meeting minutes of the Feb. 18 meeting reveal the council met to discuss which candidates to interview for the hiring of the new town clerk. They also set a starting wage of $9 per hour that would increase to $10 an hour after 90 days.
A motion was made by former council member David Hanes and seconded by former council co-chair Jim Taylor to interview four candidates, and the motion carried.
Meeting minutes from the Feb. 24 meeting reveal the board voted to hire Shakayla Everett, who would later resign.
Beginning in September 2015, Washington County News has made three records requests in reference to monies made when the town sold a purported 500 acres of timber from land purchased by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from residents after the town was nearly destroyed by flooding in 1994. Twice, former Town Clerk Shakayla Everitt stated she didn't know where the records were. Current clerk Suzanne Floyd also responded to verbal request, stating she didn't have any knowledge of the records, either.
As a result, the town has yet to show how much money was made from the sale - or where the funds were applied. In fact, although then-Chairman Henry Chambers acknowledged the sale of the timber in an open meeting, there seems to be no record of what happened to the money - a fact that resulted in a still-ongoing investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Aside from the town's inability to produce the records, the act of clearing of the land itself raised eyebrows on the federal level. Following a Congressional inquiry, FEMA concluded the town had violated the deed restrictions of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), the program through which the property was acquired.
As Caryville's Town Council moves forward, the board would do well to learn from this pattern of disregard for the law and the taxpayers to whom the town belongs.
Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was enacted in 1967 to provide the public with the right of access to government proceedings, allowing residents to know how government at all levels is spending taxpayer dollars and what decisions those governing bodies are making.
The Sunshine Law also benefits those governing bodies by helping maintain transparency and fostering a relationship with the people they serve.
While the wording of the Sunshine Law can seem complex to most, it has three clear, vital cornerstones.
First, all public meetings, boards, or commissions must be open to the public. Some exceptions - such as pending litigation or land acquisition - do apply.
When entities fail to adhere to the Sunshine Law - regardless if it is unintentional - they tend to arouse suspicion. As arguably shown in the case of Caryville's repeated missteps, one must conclude that where there's smoke, there's fire. It's simple: Follow the law and do it publicly.
Officials should also understand that media outlets are simply upholding their duty to the public to ensure transparency is upheld. In fact, our local governments should think of the local newspaper as a partner in transparency.
When the paper of record speaks up to stop what we believe to be a Sunshine Law violation from taking place, it’s to hold - not slap - the hands of local officials in the quest to maintain an open government system.
We must all work together to ensure the public’s business remains in the public eye.