In response to a letter sent by the Center of Anna Maria Island to The Islander refuting the newspaper’s claim the center is subject to public records laws, the city of Anna Maria has redressed a 2016 demand for compliance with Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
The center sent a letter Aug. 11 to Islander attorney Rachel Fugate of Shullman-Fugate of Tampa in response to the newspaper’s public records requests.
In the letter, attorney Scott Rudacille, former chair of the center board, maintains the center is not obligated to fulfill public records requests because the Sunshine Law does not apply to the nonprofit.
However, Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy told commissioners at their Aug. 24 meeting that he had reviewed Rudacille’s letter and he found erroneous factual content in the letter that should be contested.
City attorney Becky Vose drafted a response correcting statements made in the Rudacille-Islander letter that commissioners reviewed and approved Aug. 24.
“Virtually every paragraph was incorrect,” Vose told commissioners.
Vose’s letter disputes multiple statements, including the origin of the center and the role of the city in creating and maintaining it.
One paragraph, she says of the letter, “totally re-writes the actual history of the property on which AMICC operates.”
The center’s letter alleges the city of Anna Maria was selected to be a steward of the center.
Vose said some of the land where the center operates was donated by residents to the city to create a youth center, in accordance with the city charter.
Another area of the property was donated to the city by the Manatee County School District when the school moved to Holmes Beach.
Commissioner Brian Seymour noted during the meeting that the center was “undervaluing” the land in order to downplay the city’s financial generosity.
“I would venture to say it’s probably four to six times higher than they say,” he said.
Vose’s letter asserts again — repeating the February 2016 claims — that the center meets eight of nine standard criteria for determining whether an entity is subject to Florida’s Sunshine Law.
Vose sent the February 2016 notice alleging the center met the criteria in response to another public records dispute. While the center apparently complied in that matter, recent attempts by The Islander to obtain financial records and emails have been ignored.
A path for mediation
The Islander newspaper proposed in June that the center and the city take part in free, non-binding mediation facilitated by the Florida Attorney General’s office in order to resolve the public records debate.
Center board chair David Zaccagnino notified The Islander that he would poll board members on whether the center would participate. However, he has yet to respond to the AGO.
Anna Maria commissioners voted unanimously June 22 to participate in mediation with the AGO.
At the commission meeting Aug. 24, Vose said the city is “still open to having the mediation.”
Commissioner Doug Copeland said he favored sending the city letter because he didn’t want “to let (Rudacille’s opinion) stand as the position of the city.”
Commissioner Dale Woodland said he didn’t want to take the center to court. But, he added, “I’m disappointed they’re not here if we’re talking about this.”
No one representing the center attended the meeting, however, Murphy noted the center was notified Aug. 21 the letter would be on the agenda.
“They opted not to be here,” he said.
Lessig responded Aug. 30, saying she had a fundraising commitment and Zaccagnino was recovering from ankle surgery. She also circulated an email canceling the August board of directors meeting.
Islander publisher Bonner Joy addressed the commission regarding the dispute with the center.
“It’s a hard subject to broach,” Joy said.
Joy said she wants to continue her support for the center, but it desperately needs credible leadership.
She noted discrepancies exist in the Kerkering and Barbario financial audits, Guidestar, a not-for-profit financial reporting agency and financial information provided by the center to qualify for the Patterson Foundation’s Giving Challenge. “The numbers are different across the board.”
And, she said, the $850,000 endowment fund that existed in 2015 is gone. It’s been spent on deficits.
Joy also told commissioners she believes the center left out pertinent financial documents when it turned over more than 1,000 pages of financial records for a city review of its finances in July.
You are not seeing the whole picture, she told commissioners, adding that the reasons for the newspaper inquiries are accusations from the public of misuse of funds and moral corruption.
“It leaves a person to wonder, what are they hiding?” she said.