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County Commissioners Trip Into “Inadvertent” Sunshine Violations Through Emails

| January 7, 2011

Judge Raul Zambrano administering the oath of office--which includes a pledge to follow all laws--to re-elected Commissioner Milissa Holland and newly elected commissioner Nate McLaughlin last month. Commissioners Barbara Revels and George Hanns are on the dais. Alan Peterson is not pictured. (© FlaglerLive)

County Attorney Al Hadeed warned County Administrator Craig Coffey on Thursday that Coffey was prompting sunshine-law violations by soliciting comments from commissioners by email, as a group, regarding a document he was drafting about economic development, an issue at the top of the commission’s agenda this month. Violations did, in fact, follow: Two commissioners sent in comments about the document to Coffey and copied their email to all other commissioners.

Commissioners communicating directly with Coffey is legal. Copying their communications to other commissioners, when the issue is a public matter under discussion by the commission, is not.

“That is not appropriate,” Hadeed said. “I did advise him. He did not intend that they copy each other.”

Nor would it be legal if an administrator transmitted the substance of an email or conversation he had with one commissioner to another, outside of a public meeting. Coffey–who did not return calls to his office and cell phone Friday afternoon–then told Hadeed that he called at least one of the commissioners to fill them in on the legalities.

By all appearances there was nothing malicious or suspect about the email communications: they were recommended editing changes to a document that’ll be disseminated to elected officials throughout the county. On the other hand, the caliber of sunshine violations is irrelevant the moment a violation takes place, and inadvertence is no more a defense than a motorist’s plea that he was inadvertently speeding: the Sunshine law is in place to compel public officials to abide by strict standards of doing the public’s business in the open, whatever the circumstances.

On Wednesday, the commission held a workshop on economic development ahead of a countywide meeting, involving all elected officials, on the same subject. Commissioners, who are hosting the meeting, wanted to ask each elected body (the school board and the cities) to come prepared “to present a position on economic development in approximately 10 minutes,” and to “explain how you might perceive roles of a common economic development organization.” Commissioners asked Coffey to draft that invitation, but in consultation with him subsequent to the workshop on Wednesday.

On Thursday morning, Coffey emailed all the commissioners and some members of his staff the draft he’d prepared. “Please,” he wrote, “let us know if staff has captured the consensus thoughts of the board so we can get the information out in a timely manner.” Less than 45 minutes later, Commissioner Barbara Revels wrote Coffey back, asking him to rephrase a paragraph. “I don’t like the repeated message of ‘getting us back on track,'” Revels wrote. “I believe we haven’t gone off track we just have a number of people that have gone off the reservation of ‘one team one voice’ in constantly criticizing EF,” meaning Enterprise Florida, the public-private (but mostly tax-funded) economic-development organization. “Please reword those statements (2 of them) in a more positive light such as: ‘to hear your entity’s vision on ED,'” meaning economic development.

There was nothing in Revels’ email that implied anything like concealment or even an attempt to communicate with other commissioners. She merely hit the send button to all of them. “I don’t ever do that, never do that,” Revels said Friday afternoon. “All I can tell you it was an inadvertent click on the computer. I just wouldn’t do that.”

Nate McLaughlin replied to Coffey–and the commissioners–after receiving Revels’ answer, a little after noon, expanding on Revels’ idea when he wrote: “It is my desire that we refrain from any language that indicates we are ‘off track’ or the need to get ‘back in the game.'” His hope, he wrote was to press the unity theme. (The “back in the game” tag line was Enterprise Flagler’s campaign motto when it pushed last year’s doomed tax-and-build economic development referendum, which McLaughlin supported).

Shortly after McLaughlin’s email, Commissioner Milissa Holland wrote the county attorney: “This is the third email I have received this morning on this issue and am uncomfortable on these types of discussions taking place over email. Is this bordering on a Sunshine violation? Thanks in advance for a prompt response.” Hadded responded in mid-afternoon: “We did speak to the administrator and advised him that this was not appropriate.”

A request for the exchanged emails was placed with Coffey’s office Friday–all incoming and outgoing emails to Coffey regarding the intergovernmental workshop document he was working on for all other governments. County spokesman Carl Laundrie produced one email originating from the Bunnell city administration (unrelated to the commissioners’ exchanges). “At this point this is the only email outgoing or incoming,” he wrote in an email. That, of course, was not the case.

Pressed for the emails again, on two separate occasions, later in the afternoon–by which time Laundrie was likely aware FlaglerLive had obtained the documents separately (from Holland) — Laundrie, claiming the original request hadn’t been specific enough, said he’d forward them. He did.

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6 Responses for “County Commissioners Trip Into “Inadvertent” Sunshine Violations Through Emails”

  1. K says:

    So when is Coffey being relieved of his duties here?

  2. Palmtree says:

    If Laundrie cannot be more honest he needs to be sent packing. We do not need double talk and an end around by this PR flack.

  3. johninc says:

    Comm. Revels correctly points out about not having gone off-track, which would imply they were on track at some point when in fact they were never on track. The last thing this county needs is more buck-passing to an agency ( Enterprise Flagler) that has never gotten it done. How thick must one be to not get this? I am not sure what disappoints me more: the county commissioners refusal to accept responsibility and do something positive; or, the county commissioners desire to waste more taxpayers dollars by putting more work into the hands of the inept Enterprise Flagler.

  4. Susan Jones says:

    Why did Mr. Hadeed warn Administrator Coffey and not the Flagler county commissioners? Aren’t they the ones who sent the emails thus violating the Sunshine Law? Can someone please explain that to me?

  5. Elana Lee says:

    Susan Jones says:
    January 8, 2011 at 8:55 pm
    Why did Mr. Hadeed warn Administrator Coffey and not the Flagler county commissioners? Aren’t they the ones who sent the emails thus violating the Sunshine Law? Can someone please explain that to me?

    Just a guess, but I’d say because he is the County Administrator and is expected to use sound judgment in everything he writes in an email. It might be wise for him to have a “reminder” of sorts in his first sentence, because as Hadeed said, sending the emails were ok. However it was Coffey’s duty to reiterate the Sunshine Law, (since he origniated the correspondence). One could write: In keeping with Florida’s Sunshine Law, when responding do not “reply to all”. Or something like that. Simple enough.

  6. Nonplussed says:

    Don’t blame the County Administrator! It’s not his fault the comissioners goofed. It is each commissioner’s job to know the mechanics of the Sunshine Law, and it is the county attorney’s job to make sure that they understand the law and don’t get tripped up like this. Maybe it’s time for the county’s highest paid employee, Mr. Hadeed, to give the commissioners a refresher course on the finer points of the Sunshine Law so that they can stay out of trouble and not cost us taxpayers a lot of money being sued for such violations. Of course, this would require Mr. Hadeed to come into the office on occasion.

    As for the manner in which these emails were sent, think about it like this: I am a concerned citizen and I email all of my commissioners (in one email) about a matter that is important to me — say beach renourishment. I ask for responses from each of them. One of them responds to me and accidentally hits the “reply all” button. Would you accuse me — the concerned citizen — of entrapping the commissioners in a Sunshine Law violation or otherwise setting them up to fail? I should hope not!

    I think the focus of the story needs to swing around to where the real fault lies. There is way too much fingerpointing by everyone except the County Administrator, whom I did not see quoted, but is probably wondering why he is always getting blamed for all the antics that goes on around that 3-ring circus.

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