News comes today that one “outsider” has brought an ethics complaint against “insider” Commission Vice-Chairman Rachael Bennett, with the Florida Elections Commission.
Although Bennett is not up for re-election for two more years, she has taken public positions favoring the political career of sitting commissioners who are up for re-election this year, and who serve on the currently elected Board with her. Some are saying this is a violation of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine laws, and one candidate is taking her complaint to the mats; reporting that she has been disadvantaged by Bennett’s most recent actions wherein it is alleged that Bennett has converted county resources to campaign for her opponent.
County Commission candidate, Kim Kendall, who is not opposing Bennett for re-election, says that she attended the June 3rd St Johns County Commission meeting in St Augustine. During the open meeting, Kendall observed discussion of proposed Land Development Code changes that must come before the commissioners for a vote before they can be implemented. Kendall voiced her concerns to constituent taxpayers about the proposal.
After receiving replies from the Vice-Chair, Kendall says that she heard back from a number of citizens who were surprised by the replies that they received from Vice-Chair Bennett. Kendall determined that about 150 citizens had responded by writing an e-mail to one or more members of the Board.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with communicating with your elected officials by e-mail; in fact, the county maintains, at the county’s expense, the necessary technology to catalog e-mail communications between the public, county staff, and elected officials in order to respond to public records requests.
But, here’s the rub; 286.011, F.S., Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine” laws, prohibits any communication, whether formal or casual, between two or more members of the same board or commission to discuss some matter on which “foreseeable action” will be taken by the public board or commission. Further, 104.31 F.S., Florida’s “Election Laws” says, in part, “(1) No officer or employee of the state, or of any county or municipality thereof, … shall: (a) Use his or her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with an election or a nomination of office or coercing or influencing another person’s vote or affecting the result thereof. (2) An employee of the state or any political subdivision may not participate in any political campaign for an elective office while on duty.”
The question to be answered by the Florida Elections Commission is did Bennett’s communication attempt to influence voters towards a particular outcome, or, were one or more county employees used to accomplish the communication.
The Florida Elections Commission will review the following comment in Bennett’s e-mail:
“This concern was evidently created by campaign communication from a candidate that unfortunately has chosen to either misunderstand or misrepresent the intent and scope of the proposed change – I apologize that your peace of mind was disturbed unnecessarily.
When it comes time to vote, please remember that understanding land regulations, verification of assumptions, and dissemination of accurate and true information is part of what makes a county commissioner an asset to the community at large. Credibility is important.”
If the Florida Elections Commission finds that the communication is written to influence a political campaign for an elective office, or that county employees were used in the process, and further, by sending a copy of her response, not just to the citizens, but also to the four other voting members of the Board, did Rachael Bennett’s actions violate Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine” laws?