A Save Anna Maria officer is questioning whether Manatee County Commissioners Carol Whitmore and John Chappie violated Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law at a Beach Bistro gathering Sept. 15.
County Commissioner Joe McClash also raised concerns about the dinner meeting and questioned the appropriateness of county officials’ participation in an Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce meeting prior to their dinner.
Whitmore and Chappie had dinner with county administrator Ed Hunzeker, Island businessman David Teitelbaum, a chamber board member and member of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council, and Whitmore’s husband Andre Renard.
The dinner with Teitelbaum was on Hunzeker’s and Chappie’s calendars and followed a regular monthly Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce executive board meeting attended by Whitmore, Chappie, Hunzeker and Teitelbaum at the chamber office in Holmes Beach. At that meeting, Hunzeker discussed problems with the Island trolleys, as well as plans to replace the vehicles and compensate Island business owners who paid to advertise on the trolleys.
An affidavit by Nancy Deal of Holmes Beach, secretary of the citizens’ group SAM, raised a question about whether “there might be some kind of Sunshine issue” with the meeting at the restaurant. She and husband Mike were seated near enough to question the county party’s conversation and introduce themselves to officials.
Deal also sent state attorney Earl Moreland a letter about the incident, stating that “the meeting did not appear to be chance.”
On Sept. 22, Deal’s affidavit was attached to a complaint filed with the Holmes Beach Police Department. The HBPD report states that SAM treasurer and Islander Carol Soustek dropped off the affidavit “in regards to a possible violation of F.S.S. Ch 286 that allegedly occurred at 6600 Gulf Drive (Beach Bistro Restaurant) possibly involving Manatee County Commissioners Carol Whitmore, John Chappie and Administrator Edwin Hunzeker.”
Three days later, an HBPD officer interviewed Deal, who told him “she had no other information to provide in this case in regards to the specifics of the conversation she allegedly overhead between the commissioners.”
Florida’s Sunshine Law, one of the most extensive open government statutes in the country, prohibits two or more members of the same board or commission from discussing a matter outside of a public meeting that could foreseeably come before the board or commission. The requirement for a public meeting is that it be open and reasonably noticed.
Sam Morley, general counsel of the Florida Press Association, speaking generally, said, “The restaurant meeting is subject to the Sunshine Law if it was a gathering (formal or informal) of two or more board members to discuss some matter on which foreseeable action would be taken by the board.”
Deal wrote that she didn’t listen to the conversations, but at one point overheard Whitmore say “say either ‘builders’ or ‘developers.’”
Deal also wrote she heard “Mr. Hunzeker say either ‘… not alarm the public…’ or ‘…not inform the public.’”
Deal said in her affidavit that she interrupted the conversation. “I said, ‘What does that mean?’ I then identified myself by name and as a member of SAM. I also asked if there might be some kind of Sunshine issue here, to which Commissioner Whitmore responded, ‘You notice that I was not talking.’”
Reached via e-mail for comment, Deal replied, “I have no comment at this time.”
Whitmore said the dinner was on the up-and-up — that there was no discussion between her and Chappie about anything that might go before the county board.
“I totally did not break any rules. I did not talk to Chappie. He spent most of the night talking to David Teitelbaum. I spent most of the night talking to my husband and Ed. I know the rules,” said Whitmore, adding that the diners sat at the bistro bar, and she was not seated beside Chappie. In her letter to Moreland, Deal said Whitmore and Hunzeker “engaged in a continuous conversation.”
Whitmore questioned the objectivity of the complainant, noting Deal’s involvement in SAM, an organization that often takes political positions contrary to Whitmore and once refused her membership.
“It’s election time,” said Whitmore, a Republican who is running for re-election against Democrat Sundae Lynn Knight in the Nov. 2 general election. Deal’s affidavit was circulating on the Island and in Cortez last week, partly with the help of advocates of Hometown Democracy/Amendment 4 ballot measure, who also are hosting a fundraiser reception for Knight Oct. 9 in northwest Bradenton.
Reached for comment on the Beach Bistro gathering, Hunzeker said “absolutely” the diners adhered to the Sunshine Law, rules he said that are “ground in” by his four decades in government.
Referring to Chappie and Whitmore, he said, “They didn’t talk about anything related to county business.”
Referring to his conversations, he said, “I can talk to any politician I want.”
Chappie was not reached for comment.
The county attorney’s office, asked to review the affidavit, said it determined the complaint lacked merit.
But McClash, after reading Deal’s affidavit, said, “There was obviously discussion of county business at the bar at the Beach Bistro.… That, to me, crosses the line of what you are allowed to do.
The county administrator shouldn’t have a selective meeting with two commissioners and talk about county business. Period. Whether it’s at a bar or in the county administrator’s office. That’s not the way the Sunshine Law expects you to carry out business.… It’s a bad situation.”
Regarding the Sept. 15 chamber meeting, McClash said he didn’t think the Sunshine Law was violated, but he did have qualms about Hunzeker sharing his recommendations for the trolley and the advertising campaign at a chamber meeting before presenting them to the county board.
“I don’t think it had to be noticed as a government meeting as long as there was no discussion with the county commissioners,” said McClash. “Certainly there are a number of meetings that county commissioners attend and there is no discussion, and there is nothing wrong with that. I don’t really have an issue with the meeting taking place with two commissioners being in attendance.”
However, McClash added, taking issue with Hunzeker’s trolley report to the chamber, “It would have been more appropriate to brief the county commission first.”
But Islander publisher Bonner Joy claims the chamber meeting should have been noticed.
The chamber acted on behalf of the county to sell and collect funds for advertising on the trolley, Joy said, so there should have been proper notice of a public meeting. “We also learned Hunzeker requested an ‘embargo’ on public information until such time as his proposals could be presented to the full board of county commissioners,” Joy said.
Morley, the FPA attorney, told Joy, in a preliminary review, “This situation seems similar to the case where an ad hoc committee appointed to meet with the chamber of commerce to discuss a proposed transfer of city property was found to be subject to the Sunshine Law. Here, two commissioners and the administrator met with the chamber, apparently as some form of representatives of the full board, regarding public business. I would think it should have been noticed and open.”
Morley also indicated that when a staff member engages in a policy-based decision-making function with other members of the board, it is a Sunshine meeting.
Morley further said whether a county commissioner spoke or did not speak does not apply in terms of whether the law requires the meeting to be open and noticed.
Deb Wing, executive administrative assistant at the chamber, said the county commissioners often attend the chamber meetings, and “we always post a sign on the door of the AMI chamber to let people know.”
A spokeswoman with the attorney general’s office, the state agency that oversees Sunshine matters, said Sept. 17 that she could make no comment as to whether the case Morley cited would apply to the Sept. 15 Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce meeting at which Hunzeker addressed the Island trolley.
She also said her office had received no complaint regarding either the Sept. 15 chamber meeting or the Beach Bistro dinner.