Government Via Email – A Case Study
The intent of Government in the Sunshine is to assure that those governed have an opportunity to learn about issues that impact them, improving government ethics and accountability.
Islamorada Village government may tell us they are transparent. But, look at the type of things that seem to happen in Islamorada.
In this case study of a legal settlement, described below, the council and staff thought public discussion may create a public relations nightmare. That may have been true. But, avoiding public discussion while approving expenditure of taxpayers’ money is what creates the far bigger public relations nightmare for the council. Lack of transparency is unacceptable! Government decisions must be made in the Sunshine, not by email.
Back when he was mayor, Chris Sante sent an email to the other four members of council using their personal email instead of the official council email. Thus, this communication was done “out of the sunshine,” since council emails are public records.
The email regarded a settlement agreement to be approved by council, which cost village taxpayers $148,000. Mayor Sante asked council to contact the Village Attorney if willing to accept the settlement.
Then, at least one member of council got a phone call from the Village Attorney. “He told me to vote yes and not discuss. He told me to say nothing.”
According to the meeting minutes (below), there was no council discussion at all about spending $148,000 of taxpayer money. One member of the public objected during public comment. Yet, the resolution to approve was passed without council discussion with a vote of 3-2, with Vice Mayor Deb Gillis and Councilwoman Cheryl Meads voting no.
How often do members of council communicate using private email? Email, by its very nature, is considered “public record” though a bit difficult to track! How often do councilmembers speak by phone, also out of the sunshine? How often are messages relayed from one councilperson to another via a third party, a resident or attorney, for example? It happens too often.
Like other public records, e-mail messages are subject to the statutory restrictions on destruction of public records. See s. 257.36(6), F.S., stating that a public record may be destroyed or otherwise disposed of only in accordance with retention schedules established by the Division of Library and Information Services (division) of the Department of State. Thus, an e-mail communication of “factual background information” from one city council member to another is a public record and should be retained in accordance with the retention schedule for other records relating to performance of the agency’s functions and formulation of policy. AGO 01-20.
See the email below, and then the minutes from the council meeting related to the resolution. Also, note the private email addresses of the council members used Sept. 27, 2018, but the village email addresses of the village attorney and village manager, noted by the ending “islamorada.fl.us.”
Note: We have not shown the names of the private parties involved. It is the mayor, attorney and council we are questioning.
From: Chris Sante <email@example.com>
Date: September 27, 2018 at 1:36:16 PM EDT
To: Cheryl Meads <firstname.lastname@example.org>, email@example.com, Jim Mooney <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Mike Forester <email@example.com>
Cc: Roget Bryan <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Seth Lawless <email@example.com>
Subject: Settlement on xxxxxxxxx
DO NO RESPOND TO THIS EMAIL.
Please consider below to settle xxxxxxxxx.
In trying to be fair, the council agree to settle with xxxxxxx. After
going back and forth, the offer xxxxxxxxxx agreed to settle for is $148,000.
The cost to settle is $.044 cents per $1,000 of value, so a if you are taxed
at $500,000, the cost is $22.00 or $44.00 for a 1 million dollar house.
I think it is worth it to close this matter and avoid a long legal battle
and bad PR for the village.
Please contact Roget if you wish to settle this.
Minutes from Council Meeting, a resolution to settle for $148,000
E. Resolution Approving Settlement Agreement in the Matter of xxxxxxxxx
TAB 10 xxxxxxxxx vs. Islamorada, Village of Islands A RESOLUTION OF THE VILLAGE COUNCIL OF ISLAMORADA, VILLAGE OF ISLANDS, FLORIDA, APPROVING AND AUTHORIZING THE PROPOSED SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT IN THE MATTER OF xxxxxxxxxxx VS. ISLAMORADA, VILLAGE OF ISLANDS; AUTHORIZING THE APPROPRIATE VILLAGE OFFICIALS TO EXECUTE THE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT AND TO TAKE ALL ACTIONS NECESSARY TO IMPLEMENT THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF THE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT; AND PROVIDING FOR AN EFFECTIVE DATE
This item was heard at 7:37 p.m.
Village Attorney Roget Bryan read the title of the resolution and presented the staff report regarding a settlement agreement with xxxxxxxxxxxxxx for $148,000 which pertained to a claim for damages in which the claimants alleged the Village prevented them from completing a residential structure at xxxxxxxxxxxx.
Mayor Sante asked if there were any questions or comments from Council; there were none.
Mayor Sante opened public comment.
Van Cadenhead questioned why the Village was settling with the xxxxxxxxxx’s if the Village did not admit any wrongdoing and spoke in opposition to a settlement.
Mayor Sante closed public comment.
Councilman Mike Forster made a motion to approve. Councilman Jim Mooney seconded the motion. Council voted, and the motion passed 3-2 with Vice Mayor Deb Gillis and Councilwoman Cheryl Meads voting in opposition.