The Holmes Beach Police Department deemed “unfounded” an allegation of a Sunshine Law violation involving Manatee County Commissioners John Chappie and Carol Whitmore and county administrator Ed Hunzeker.
The case was closed Sept. 30, about a week after it was opened.
HBPD Chief Jay Romine said the complainant, Holmes Beach resident Nancy Deal, and the commissioners were interviewed and that the HBPD determined there was no violation.
“It is apparent after taking sworn statements of all parties involved that these individuals met for a social gathering, but there is no evidence or statements to confirm that any county business was discussed or conducted,” Romine said in a news release Sept. 30.
The state attorney’s office reviewed the case and concurred, determining there was no basis for further investigation or prosecution.
Florida Sunshine Law — Chapter 286 of the state statutes — establishes a basic right of access to the meetings of boards, commissions and other governing bodies of local governments. The law prohibits members of a board from privately discussing board-related business and requires reasonable notice of public meetings.
HBPD received a complaint and drafted an incident report Sept. 22 related to a Sept. 15 dinner at the Beach Bistro, 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach.
Deal was at the bistro that evening with her husband and later filed an affidavit questioning whether there was “some kind of Sunshine issue” over a gathering at the bar that involved Chappie, Whitmore and Hunzeker. The county officials were joined at the bar by Whitmore’s husband and Island businessman David Teitelbaum, who serves on the Manatee County Tourist Development Council and a chamber board member.
Deal, an officer with the Save Anna Maria citizens group, said she overhead Whitmore and Hunzeker talking. She reported to HBPD that she heard Whitmore “say either ‘builders’ or ‘developers’” and heard Hunzeker “say either ‘…not alarm the public…’ or ‘…not inform the public.’”
Deal, in addition to filing a complaint, which was dropped off at HBPD by another SAM officer, sent a letter to the state attorney’s office. She said the county officials did not meet by chance at the bar and that Whitmore and Hunzeker “engaged in a continuous conversation.”
Deal told the HBPD she “had no other information to provide … in regards to the specifics of the conversation,” according to the police report.
Romine, in the HBPD release, said, “Someone overhearing what might have been ‘builders’ or ‘developers’ does not rise to the level of a Sunshine Law violation. The statement of the restaurant employee also confirms those of the county officials involved.”
Whitmore and Hunzeker maintained throughout the investigation that the Sunshine Law was not violated during the casual dinner.
Whitmore, who is seeking re-election and suggested the complaint was politically motivated, stressed that she and Chappie sat apart from one another at the bar and did not talk about county business.
Hunzeker said he can, under the statute, talk with Whitmore or Chappie separately about county matters.
Teitelbaum said, “I’ve been with Carol and with John and with Ed before for dinner.… Usually after a chamber event. We all pay our own way. And they never ever break the Sunshine Law.… John and Carol were not talking shop.”
In addition to the HBPD and state attorney’s reviews, county attorney Ted Williams said he read Deal’s affidavit and determined “there’s nothing there” in regards to a Sunshine Law violation.
“It isn’t against the Sunshine Law for someone to mention ‘developers,” said Williams.
The affidavit quoted pieces of conversations and nothing in the document suggested a violation of the statute, he concluded.
The dinner followed a meeting at the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce, where Hunzeker briefed the chamber board and other attendees, including Whitmore and Chappie, about the replacement of the Island trolleys and the suspension of a member-supported advertising program on the vehicles.
Deal’s complaint triggered conversation at city halls and other hangouts on the Island last week among citizens who often see elected officials and appointed board members in social settings.
In advisory opinions, the Florida Attorney General’s Office states that a social meeting of two or more elected officials from one board does not constitute a violation of the Sunshine Law.
However, a conversation between those two board members about board business would constitute a violation.