There have certainly been personality clashes on the Collier County Commission since last November’s election. Some of the members have been vacillating between a generally combative attitude and obvious discontentment with the questions and comments of newly seated member Georgia Hiller.
Instead of responding with the attitude that questions are prompted by a desire to seek answers to current issues, there have been occasions when other commissioners have responded in a rather irritated manner and appear as though they have taken certain questions as personal attacks.
Ironically, being overly defensive raises concern and more in-depth questions then need to be asked. In the past it was many times Commissioner Tom Henning who brought forward various challenging questions, although he was not always successful in obtaining answers. Things appear to be changing.
Change can be difficult and with a board comprised of several individuals who have been in office a very long time, the current transition has moved in a direction that can sometimes be inconsistent with providing the best representation to constituents.
Earlier this month, in what could be characterized as a political rally to support a new Interstate 75 interchange in Golden Gate Estates, those who did not favor the interchange were actually asked by their elected official to leave the meeting. This was a public meeting in a building owned by the public.
More recently in an interview with the Naples Daily News, another commissioner stated he would file suit against a citizen if she publicly questions his integrity again.
Neither of these exchanges offers solutions to the problems they were addressing, if anything they simply throw more fuel on an already huge fire. Yet that will probably not be the end of this trend. Instructions were given to the county attorney at the last board meeting that each member of the board is now to receive copies of e-mails or other communication involving opinions or reports sent from the county attorney to other board members.
There are numerous laws and opinions touching on the subject of using staff members as conduits to transmit information between officials that is intended for discussion in public meetings. When this direction was given at the board meeting it was most likely not done to intentionally set up a format for out-of-the-Sunshine communications or to use the county attorney as a go-between for commissioners. However, with the high degree of sensitivity of some issues and the relaxed manner in which e-mail is sometimes utilized, the board is treading on some very questionable territory by utilizing this form of dissemination of material. When each member is notified of the county attorney’s response, these communications could provide indications as to other board members preferences on issues scheduled for public discussion.
Dissemination of material is not necessarily against the Sunshine law but it requires a high degree of caution so as to not inadvertently trigger a violation. The attorney general in an opinion responding to a city municipality with a similar issue stressed this concern: “…the Sunshine Law is implicated when a person other than a board member is used as a liaison among board members…this office would advise the city to be cognizant of the potential that commissioners seeking clarification by follow-up with staff and staff responses provided to all commissioners might be considered to be a de facto meeting of the commissioners by using staff as a conduit between members of the commission.”
There is no pressing need that would necessitate placing themselves in a riskier position to violate Sunshine laws. The board’s focus should be on learning more about the public’s opinions and concern instead of what appears to be an effort to keep tabs on another commissioner’s legal questions and discussions.
This kind of activity serves no valid public purpose and could open the door for possibly more legal challenges.