Monday night’s Marco Island City Council meeting adjourned suddenly, angering many of the approximately 250 citizens who attended.
Many of the people said they were interested in items on the agenda relating to reuse water rates, the city’s Septic Tank Replacement Program and the possible removal of Herman Diebler, a member of the Waterways Advisory Committee.
During the early public comment period for items not on the agenda, several people commented that e-mails from 2005 between council members and Marco Island City Manager Bill Moss that were collected by “Butch” Neylon and Ray Beaufort showed possible violations of the state Government in Sunshine Law.
Some citizens requested that votes on items and contracts for the Septic Tank Replacement Program be delayed until an investigation is made to determine if any violations occurred.
Some councilors who voted to end the meeting said that citizens were disruptive and discourteous.
Councilor Chuck Kiester made a motion to table all items related to the STRP.
The motion failed 5-2. Councilor Ted Forcht voted with Kiester to remove the items relating to the program.
Council vice-chairman Glenn Tucker motioned to adjourn the meeting, which was approved 6-1. Kiester voted against the adjournment.
The e-mails that citizens at the meeting referred to were written about in the Monday issue of the Marco Eagle. The e-mails included messages between former councilors John Arceri and Vickie Kelber, and former and current councilors and Marco Island City Manager Bill Moss.
Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, and Marco Island City Attorney Rich Yovanovich, were asked to comment for the article.
After the story appeared, Harper stated in an e-mail to the Eagle that she thought “a clarification on a couple of points is necessary” and that she tried to make it clear that only a court can determine whether a violation of the Sunshine Law occurred.
“The article did mention, ‘If a court determines that there was a Sunshine Law violation, then any decision that came forth from that discussion is void,’ ” her e-mail said.
Harper added the article’s headline, ‘Expert believes city violated Sunshine Law,’ implied that she stated that a violation occurred and was not accurate.
“Also, I did read the e-mails you sent, and I want to clarify that my the majority of comments were to the e-mails in general.”
She went on, saying, “My general points were that if there was discussion between two or more members of the same public board about public business, those discussions must be held in accordance with the procedures of the Sunshine Law, i.e. open and noticed to the public and minutes must be taken,” she stated.
“If there was any discussion between board members about foreseeable publics business via e-mail, this would be problematic. Again, only a court could determine, however, if this action constitutes Sunshine Law violation.”
She said there were some specific e-mails that were highlighted that concerned her and seemed “problematic.” She stated that the e-mails seemed to reflect “a conversation between council members about foreseeable public business, an issue that may have been voted on or discussed previously at a public meeting, but that may resurface. If those discussion did in fact involve an issue that could foreseeable come before the public board again, then again, I see a problem in terms of the Sunshine Law.”
E-mails between a public board member and a public employee are generally not covered by the law, according to Harper, “UNLESS, as you mentioned briefly in your article, the public board member is using the city manager as a liaison to communicate about foreseeable public business with other public board members i.e. is not merely exchanging information with the city manager, but trying to solicit comments, votes, or conversation from other public board members by way of the city manager.”
She added that the same concept applies to former public board members.
“A former commissioner is not subject to the Sunshine Law once he or she no longer holds office,” Harper stated. “Again, if that former commissioner is a liaison between current public board members, however, that could be a problem. The issue of liaisons is of frequent concern to citizens, and we frequently here questions on this topic on our toll free hot line. Sometimes journalists, and citizens are used as liaisons as well as public employees.”
She reiterated in the e-mail that, “IF a COURT determines there is a Sunshine Law violation, the discussions are any decision made in violation (i.e. that were secret) are void.”
Yovanovich requested that he be sent the e-mails. After receiving them, he e-mailed the Eagle the following statement.
“I can’t comment on the allegation that the Sunshine Law was violated without doing a lot of investigation into the e-mails. However, all decisions made by the City Council were made at properly advertised public meetings. Therefore, even if a violation occurred and I am not saying one did, the violation was cured by the City Council publicly discussing the matter and voting after the public discussion.”
Marco Island City Manager Bill Moss didn’t respond to a phone call and e-mail asking for comment about the e-mails and possible violations. He declined comment about the matter after Monday’s meeting.
Arceri stated in an e-mail sent to the Eagle that the article “makes a very serious allegation.” He added that facts behind the e-mails were not given to the “so-called expert” and other experts on the law were not contacted.
“I have personally reviewed all of the e-mails cited by CARES and it is clear to me that there were no violations and that they do not understand the Sunshine Law,” Arceri stated. “I also believe that the ‘expert’ had no issue or subject matter background or timing information to properly review the very serious allegations.”
Arceri said that normal correspondence between council members and Moss is not a violation of the law. He said that the sequence of e-mails between him and Kelber were related to a previously approved rate increase on water rates for condominiums.
“This was an administrative discussion and not related to any council agenda item and is also allowed by the Sunshine Law,” he stated. “I was simply asking who should send out the letter to the public and what should be included.”
Bob Bowe, an equity member of the Island Country Club, said he attended the meeting because a request to increase reuse water rates from 58 cents to $1.23 per 1,000 gallons was on the agenda.
“For this council to adjourn a public meeting of hundreds of people who came for a variety of topics because of a couple of inappropriate comments is a travesty,” Bowe said. “This should have never have happened.”
Eight-year Marco Island resident June Walker said that the councilors were rude during the meeting.
“For them to cancel a meeting when they are representatives of the people of Marco Island is the same as hiding in a hole,” she said. “I really think they need to come out and face the people and face the facts and problems and solve the problems instead of creating them.”
Walker added that the adjournment was “disgusting.”
Prior to the start of the meeting, chairwoman Terri DiSciullo asked the audience to be courteous and respectful during the evening.
Councilor Chuck Kiester said he was “saddened” by the quick action of the councilors to end the meeting. “It’s just going to be worse the next time around,” he said. “There will be double the number of people (attending). I don’t think anything was gained.”
“I felt that there was just too many people who were acting unruly,” councilor Mike Minozzi said.
Kiester noted that the adjournment put a moratorium on the STRP project.
Russ Colombo said that the adjournment was a “gagging of an entire community” by councilors who voted to end the session.
Colombo, chairman of the political action committee, Preserve Our Paradise, said that his committee and others should resurface and “change the direction” on the island.
“We’re not being governed — we are being dictated to,” he said.