A packed Marco Island City Council meeting adjourned abruptly Monday night after the crowd became "unruly" amid allegations of possible Sunshine Law violations.
Some in the crowd argued that as reported in Monday's edition of the Marco Eagle possible violations of Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law tainted decisions relating to the controversial seven-year septic tank replacement program and that there should be a moratorium on all issues relating to the program until an investigation of the violations occurred.
After hearing from members of the crowd, one of whom called the program "a grand criminal conspiracy," Councilman Chuck Kiester made a motion to stop all items related to the septic tank replacement program. The motion failed 5-2 with Kiester and Councilman Ted Forcht, consistent sewer opponents, in the minority.
Following a smattering of boos, Vice Chairman Glenn Tucker moved to adjourn. It passed on a 6-1 vote with Kiester dissenting.
The meeting, which drew 150 people, ended after half an hour.
"The crowd was unruly and I didn't sense it was going to end," said Tucker, a councilman since Marco's incorporation in 1997. "This is the earliest and most vociferous the crowd has ever been."
"I'll make the same motion at every meeting when the crowd is as disorderly as this," Tucker added. "It's more civil than having the (police) chief throw them out."
The crowd, council members and city staff all seemed stunned by the decision. City Manager Bill Moss said that this was the first time he had seen a meeting adjourn so quickly in 33 years as a city manager.
Kiester said: "I'm surprised and shocked. It makes no sense to me. Next time you'll have twice as many people here. It just shows disdain for the citizens of Marco."
The Sunshine Law allegations, prompted by an open records request from two Marco residents and sewer opponents Butch Neylon and Ray Beaufort, center on former city councilman John Arceri.
Arceri wrote e-mails in summer 2005 regarding the septic tank replacement program and an adjustment to the water and wastewater rates. The Eagle story attributed a statement to the director of the First Amendment Foundation (FAF), an open government advocacy group, saying that she "believes" council members broke the law.
Arceri denied the charges Monday afternoon in an e-mail to Moss and blamed the story for publishing "inaccuracies and inuendos (sic)."
"All (the FAF director) did was just cite the law," Arceri later said in a telephone interview. "She was just speaking generalities. (The story) leaves an impression in someone's mind that I am already guilty of violating the law."
Adria Harper, the FAF director, sent an e-mail to the Eagle on Monday saying that she wanted to clarify her remarks. She wrote that she did not say a violation of the Sunshine Law occurred and that her comments for the most part related to general e-mail correspondence.
When contacted by phone Monday, Harper echoed those points.
"I can't say if there's a violation of the Sunshine Law," she said. "Only a court can say."
"I don't really know the context of the situation," she added. "I was told these issues are controversial so there could be a problem of not having everything relating to them out in the open."
As written in the article, Harper reiterated Monday that the e-mails, which also involved former councilwoman Vickie Kelber, and current council members Mike Minozzi and Terri DiSciullo could be "problematic" if they related to issues that would involve foreseeable public business.
In its story the Eagle article quoted Harper as saying, "If a court determines that there was a Sunshine Law violation, then any decision that came forth from that discussion is void."
Contacted Monday night, Eagle Editor Tom Rife said that the only thing he would have changed about the story was to include comment from Arceri and Moss.
"I think what (staff writer Ed Bania) wrote was informational," Rife said. "I think Adria Harper is not the one who decides who violates the Sunshine Law, the courts do. I think the article says that."
Rife said that there would be nothing in Tuesday's paper immediately related to the story, but that the newspaper would be tracking the issue.
"We'll be following up on that story for some time," he said. "And I think the Daily News will, too."
Marco City Attorney Rich Yovanovich said that he would begin an investigation of the e-mails if directed by the council.
"I would need to see all (the e-mails)," he said. "I would need to see the whole chain. It's important to remember that (any Sunshine Law violation) can be cured if action is taken at a public meeting and that's what has happened in this case."
Items on Monday night's agenda, including the awarding of contracts for the 2007 portion of the septic tank replacement program, will be heard at the council's next regular meeting on Feb. 20, Moss said after speaking with DiSciullo on the telephone following the meeting.