Historic City News is looking into a practice of “polling commissioners” that is believed to have occurred in St Augustine when the appointed City Manager sampled opinions of one or more elected city commissioners outside of a properly noticed public meeting.
Acting on a tip from a former commissioner, and our own observations during recent St Augustine City Commission meetings, there is an appearance that certain issues brought before the commission for a vote, could have occurred after some advance discussion or agreement between certain commissioners.
Florida’s Government in the Sunshine laws require transparency in the decision making process. Although we commonly hear members of elected or appointed boards being admonished to avoid conversation with other members of the same board if that conversation relates to matters that they will later be asked to decide, it is also a violation to use an intermediary to accomplish the same end.
In a hypothetical example, only, if Commissioner Sikes-Kline wanted an audit of contracts related to the 450th Commemoration, she can communicate that request to the City Manager, and ask that it be placed on the agenda for a future meeting and then noticed to the public — the correct way to accomplish her request.
But, what if, again hypothetically, the City Manager knows that he has done something that, if discovered, might embarrass him or reflect poorly on another member of his staff? Once on the agenda, he has no vote as to the decision to proceed with an audit; but the mayor and three other commissioners do. Is it possible that the City Manager could call a different commissioner, perhaps someone with whom he has a close social relationship, and inform them of Sikes-Kline’s request? Perhaps even attempt or persuade them not to support it?
Since we are only speaking hypothetically, what if Sikes-Kline feared that there might not be two other commissioners who would support her audit request; so, she asked the City Manager to “check the pulse” of the other voting members? Could you imagine the City Manager polling each of the remaining commissioners and asking for the same cooperation?
We offer these hypotheticals to illustrate a less obvious opportunity for violation of the Sunshine Act. Investigation of a similar situation concluded recently by the Assistant State Attorney in Walton County. It was alleged that one board member used a friend to ask three other board members if they would support getting rid of another member of their board.
A move was afoot to remove Walton County Planning Commissioner Suzanne Harris for missing meetings. Commissioner Tom Terrell was accused of using a friend to poll board members Lee Perry, David Kramer and Tom Patton, to see if he had enough votes before bringing the removal up in a meeting. The effort to remove Harris was aborted at the October 8th Walton County Planning Commission meeting when allegations of the illegal poll first arose.
Subsequently Terrell and another planning commission member, Sally Merrifield, resigned their seats on the Walton County Planning Commission and Patton was not reappointed. Harris didn’t resign, however, she was ultimately removed by the Walton County Commission.