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3 Flagler Beach Commissioners Attend Closed-Door County Staff Meeting, Clouding Sunshine

| July 18, 2012

The Flagler Beach City Commission's Jane Mealy (left), Kim Carney (third from left)_ and Mayor Linda Provencher, foreground, attended a closed-door county staff meeting with the U.S. Corps of Engineers last week, raising questions of sunshine violations. Joy McGrew, second from left, was not involved. (© FlaglerLive)

The Flagler Beach City Commission’s Jane Mealy (left), Kim Carney (third from left)_ and Mayor Linda Provencher, foreground, attended a closed-door county staff meeting with the U.S. Corps of Engineers last week, raising questions of sunshine violations. Joy McGrew, second from left, was not involved. (© FlaglerLive)


Several years ago the Seminole County School Board took a bus tour around the county, with district staff, to explore rezoning issues. Board members did not consider their trip an open meeting. Rather, they were present, with staff, in what they called a fact-finding situation. They were sued for meeting outside the sunshine. The school board members defended themselves by saying that they never talked to each other or discussed the issue while on that tour.

A circuit court disagreed. So did the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. That court ruled in November 2008 that, even taking the school board members at their word—that they never discussed anything pertinent to the issue while on the bus tour—the board “had ultimate decision-making authority; was gathered together in a confined bus space; and it undoubtedly had the opportunity at that time to make decisions outside of the public’s scrutiny. We conclude, therefore, that the conduct of the bus tour, indeed, constituted a violation of the Sunshine Law.”

Hiding behind the notion of fact-finding, silence or observance of a staff meeting was no defense—even if, as in this case, the bus tour was not a secret and two reports had been invited to take part.

Last week County Administrator Craig Coffey hosted a staff meeting focused on an ongoing U.S. Corps of Engineers study of the county shoreline, and that shoreline’s qualification for a beach “renourishment,” or dredging, project that would add sand to eroding beaches. The issue is critical to the county and to Flagler Beach, both of whose governments have been contending with means of countering beach erosion, and working with the Corps toward potential relief from the problem. Both governments are holding a joint meeting on July 31 to discuss beach erosion and a separate proposal to battle it.

The July 12 meeting was a closed-door, “staff” meeting, in Coffey’s description. But not exactly.

Three members of the Flagler Beach City Commission attended together: Mayor Linda Provencher, and city commissioners Jane Mealy and Kim Carney. As did Bruce Campbell, the Flagler Beach City Manager, who had invited the elected members, and advised them not to speak during the meeting. The Flagler Beach city clerk was not comfortable with the arrangement. She posted a public notice of the meeting. But the notice was rendered effectively moot by the fact that Coffey kept the meeting closed: it did not help the public to know that two or more of its representatives were meeting on an issue of current concern, if the public was not allowed access to that meeting.

Dennis McDonald showed up at the meeting. McDonald is a candidate for the Flagler County Commission. The Republican is running in the Aug. 14 primary against fellow-Republican Frank Meeker to fill the seat being vacated by Milissa Holland. McDonald has been attending county and Palm Coast government meetings almost without fail for months. He’d been at a county meeting earlier this month where he’d heard commissioners discuss Coffey’s coming meeting with the corps of engineers. McDonald also heard commissioners’ discomfort at the notion that the meeting would not be open to the public. He took that to mean that commissioners had directed Coffey to open the meeting.

They hadn’t: a staff meeting is still Coffey’s call. And when McDonald showed up for the meeting, Coffey told him he could not attend.

Like all county or city executives or department heads, Coffey routinely holds meetings with staff and other concerns, other than elected politicians. He may do so at will, behind closed doors, with no access to press or public, or to anyone he doesn’t wish to invite: it’s his prerogative, and he’s not violating the Sunshine Law by doing so.

Nor would he be violating the law even if, for example, two or more city commissioners from another jurisdiction were to attend his closed-door staff meeting as observers.

“However,” Brabara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation wrote in an email, “the sunshine law might apply if the issue under discussion at the county meeting will come before the city commission for its consideration.”

County staff and the Corps were talking about an issue of serious if long-lasting concern to the county commission and the Flagler Beach City Commission. In fact, that very evening, the Flagler Beach politicians who attended the staff meeting talked about the issue to the rest of their board, at length, underscoring the very question at issue regarding sunshine: was it or was it not an issue that would come before the board for discussion and consideration? By the city commissioners’ own conduct, it clearly was, although Peterson also notes that “an issue of concern is different than an issue that will come before the city commission for action.”

McDonald brought his concern about the closed-door meeting to the county commission Monday evening, criticizing Coffey for closing the meeting and County Attorney Al Hadeed for determining the closure allowable. McDonald’s understanding of the Sunshine law was muddled: he was under the impression that a staff meeting could not include non-staff personnel such as the Corps, when it clearly may: government staffers meet routinely with agencies and individuals doing business with government, privately, legally, in the daily conduct of business. The only pertinent difference in this case was not Coffey’s description of the meeting so much as the presence of the Flagler Beach city commissioners and mayor, who themselves clouded the sunshine matter.

But Commissioner Milissa Holland noted: “In the future I don’t want to condone having a sunshine law violation by another municipality in our building, so I would suggest Mr. Coffey that, in the future—”

“But I don’t think there was one, if they did not discuss it,” Barbara Revels, who chairs the county commission, said. “They were allowed to sit there and basically monitor a class, so to speak. If that what occurred.”

The class, as the court of appeal case notes regarding the school board trip on a zoning issue, was a matter of current concern: if several city commissioners were permitted to attend, why not members of the public?

“I think they essentially did monitor a class and I don’t think any sunshine violation did occur, but I will advise them not to bring more than one commissioner,” Coffey said.

Just as clearly, there was no malice or attempt to hide anything from the public, so far as the city commissioners and the mayor were concerned. They had not gone to the meeting to hear or think up issues they were not prepared to discuss openly—as they did subsequently.

“I don’t know anything about closed door, open door, I don’t understand any of that,” Carney, one of the commissioners at the meeting, said. “But they did call it a staff meeting, and the corps made it clear that it was due to the fact that there were going to be some numbers and some figures shared about the project, and they wanted it to stay somewhat limited because of that fact. Because evidently if it’s open to media slash the public, contractors could come in, people could hear things or anticipate their projects were ready to go when they’re not ready to go, and the corps could be inundated with requests for work or proposals or that kind of stuff.” Carney added: “We were advised before we went into the meeting that could not talk, and we did not talk. We just listened. I took notes, I believe Jane probably took notes as well.” (Neither Craney nor Mealy are in favor of the dredging and beach renourishment the corps is leaning toward.)

Mealy said the city clerk made clear that she was uncomfortable with that many commissioners and the mayor attending. “I guess I’m never comfortable with—if you’re going to call it a closed meeting, I’m not happy with that.” Mealy said. “I believe that everybody needs to be able to hear what’s being said It shouldn’t be a secret.”

“As usual,” Petersen, the First Amendment Foundation president, said of this particular case, “it’s hard to give a definitive answer.” She added: “I don’t understand why a citizen would be denied access, frankly, but it’s not clear under the facts that a sunshine violation has occurred.”

And even if it had, the Flagler Beach city commissioners “cured” that possible violation hours later, at their meeting, when they delved into what they’d heard openly: the appeal court decision in 2008, while deeming the bus tour a violation of sunshine, went on to note that it was “cured” by the board’s subsequent transparent actions and vigorous, open debate on the matter. The absence of open debate is not something the Flagler Beach City Commission can often be accused of.


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17 Responses for “3 Flagler Beach Commissioners Attend Closed-Door County Staff Meeting, Clouding Sunshine”

  1. JR says:

    Maybe the more important matter might be the fact that the county administrator apparently wants to hide the U.S. Corps of Engineers assessment of our shoreline. What gives Craig Coffey the exclusive, supreme, right to the professional evaluation of our coast. Last time I checked Flagler County belongs the the property owners, not the county administer, his supreme majesty. Perhaps ruling from that massive monument to government excess the Tah Majhal has clouded Coffey’s judgement. If the Flagler Beach commissioners had the violate Sunshine to find out the real information for their constituents, that might demonstrate what it takes to find out the truth from his royal majesty

  2. Lonewolf says:

    It’s a typical GOP move, lots of secret agendas. If we don’t like it VOTE THEM OUT

  3. Rick says:

    Sounds like a setup and the 3 FB commissioners fell right into the trap.

  4. JH says:

    I hope that political ineptitude will not interfere with gaining approval for this project. Aside from the Sunshine Law and other issues observed in this article, renourishment projects also have to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Endangered Species Act, and survive an environmental impact statement and public comment period before being approved. Erosion has obviously affected Flagler Beach, and modern renourishment projects have been proven to cause minimal harm to benthic and burrowing species along the coastline and may significantly improve the nesting habitat for sea turtles in this area. Tourism and recreational enjoyment should benefit from renourishment as well. Thanks to zoning, if the project is contained to Flagler Beach there should be very minimal interference to littoral/property rights because homes are west of A1A until you reach Beverly Beach. It would be a shame for procedural errors by our elected officials to interfere with the restoration of our beach.

  5. gatorfan1 says:

    the gov can remove them from office for that trick!

  6. MSFB says:

    If your going to be an official be it commissioner, county or city, mayor or city manager you had better know what the Florida Sunshine Law is. There is no excuse for not knowing. Seminars are done all the time for city and county officials on the Sunshine Law. Miss Carney you really show your ignorance in your statement. Perhaps you show spend more time on learning your position and less time defending TURTLES!

  7. JL says:

    I think they were trying to keep something from the public. But they haven’t exactly shown to be effective councilmen/women anyway, in most of what they do.

    As election time nears, vote any incumbent out of office, and keep doing it until the house has been cleaned. It’s the only way to show we mean it when we say we want change. These guys take their position for granted.

  8. JD Rourke says:

    Although it may not have been the best course of action, there seems little harm done by this workshop/meeting. For everyone posting on here who wants to “clean the house” why ´not run for office yourself and subject yourself to cheap shots from everyone who cares to post a comment.

    I think for the most part that our local elected officials are sincere and doing their best. May not agree with all their points of view but I see no evidence of cronyism or wrongdoing.

    just my thoughts…

  9. question says:

    Could anyone list 3 things the U.S. Corps of Engineers haven’t messed up beyond all recognition.

    Just a couple of the many ‘less than successful’ endeavors:

    * 1 Controversies following Hurricane Katrina (2005)
    1.1 Levee breaches immediately following Hurricane Katrina
    1.2 Design problems and mechanisms of failure
    1.3 Investigation of levee failure
    1.3.1 Senate committee hearings

    * Beach renourishment Main article: Beach nourishment
    The beach nourishment work by the Corps of Engineers is another area of controversy since the temporary replenishment of beach sand is extremely expensive and profitable.

    Calls for reform go back decades; the Corps’ credibility had been challenged as early as the late 1920s.

    Seems a better, more permanent idea would be artificial reefs. Florida is the site of many artificial reefs, many created from deliberately sunken ships. Opportunity for more marine life as well.

  10. Dan Davis says:

    Clearly, there were quite a few people involved in the meeting (from Flagler Beach and the FCBOCC) that do not understand the Sunshine law. More than two commissioners from the same board absolutely can not meet together without public notice and an open forum. It’s cut and dry. Even if none of them said a word at the meeting, it’s the perception that makes citizens uncomfortable.

  11. tulip says:

    @ JD ROURKE I totally agree with you—-much ado about nothing, but there again look at from whom the complaint came from initially. I agree there should be “sunshine laws” but sometimes it’s overdone. Also, did it ever occur to anyone that if any officials want to be sneaky and put one over on people, as some one here suggested, all they would have to do is call on the phone and speak to each other. I sincerely doubt that the BOCC does that, I’ve seen them on tv many times actually engaging in give and take discussions, pro and con on how to vote on an issue. That’s whatI Iike about this Board over what we had several years ago, they think, talk and get things done and it doesn’t take 6-8 hour meetings like it used to be back then.

    • Magnolia says:

      There is a reason for sunshine laws. They are never “much ado about nothing”, but how you keep government honest and accountable.

      Citizens are entitled to see and to know what they are doing.

  12. "My Daily Rant" says:

    Lone Wolf,Do you mean like when the Dems. locked the doors with YOUR suprime leader doing that mess you people call Health Care.As a long time Flagler resident I believe its time for Mr. Coffey to move on and find another job.

  13. retiredatthebeach45 says:

    Does anyone see this for what it really is? Yet another screw up by the City Manager for “inviting them” [the commissioners]. Couldn’t he have singularly attended and prepared a report either verbal or written to the Commissioners at their next meeting. According to one Commissioner, the city manager is the “ethics officer” for the city. One would think that title would come with at least a very basic knoweldge of the very clearly defined rules contained within the Sunshine Law. Particularly when his experienced Clerk expressed discomfort with their attendance. Will three of you get a clue and put an end to the City’s and your liability?!?!?!?

  14. tulip says:

    @ Magnolia——I never said the Sunshine Laws were much ado about nothing, I said this PARTICULAR INCIDENT was much about nothing and consider the source the complaint came from.

  15. Jackie Mulligan says:

    Just a comment, It seems to me that Flagler Beach DID do the right thing by posting the meeting, because there was going to be more than 1 commissioner going with the manager.

    The problem stems from NOT Flagler Beach, but with the Manager at the county, Mr Coffey restricting the openness of the meeting to the public.(of which I see no reason) this didn’t look like a staff meeting to me.

    As most of you know I belong to a group that is trying to save the beach from seawalls.We have been trying to have an alternative method used and it seems to me like we kicked the hornets nest.(meaning we now have the Army corp of Engineers here at a staff meeting???

    This meeting should have been open to the public! the beach restoration affects all people in the county,not just the residents of Flagler Beach, everyone in the county comes to our beach,
    Our message is out there, please visit our website for more information.

    Get involved call your Commissioners and State representatives, we need help, even if you make one phone call it can help.

    Thank you,
    Jackie Mulligan

  16. DILLIGAF says:

    I smell the concerned citizens group in this Bruce–Art—Ron–and the .The nay sayers!!!!1

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