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Date of Issue: March 17, 2010

Sunshine law expert seeks Stoltzfus e-mails

Anna Maria’s legal issues continue to get complicated.

The consultant who helped lawyers win a $1 million lawsuit against the Venice City Commission last year has asked the city for all e-mails pertaining to city business that were sent and/or received by Commissioner Harry Stoltzfus and planning and zoning board member Jim Conoly.

Michael Barfield asked for “all e-mails, including attachments, regardless of whether on a personal or private e-mail account, sent or received by Jim Conoly and Harry Stoltzfus for the period beginning on March 1, 2009, through March 10, 2010.”

Mike Coleman of Pine Avenue Restoration said “no comment” when asked if he or his legal team had hired Barfield.

In Barfield’s request to the city, he cited Florida statutes governing public records, noting that under Florida Statute 119.07(1), even if an assertion is made that an e-mail is not a public record subject to public inspection, the requested e-mail “shall, nevertheless, not be disposed of for a period of 30 days after the date on which a written request to inspect or copy the record was served.”

City clerk Alice Baird was directed to provide a written explanation if it is determined that any requested e-mail is confidential or exempt from the statute.

Copies of Barfield’s letter were sent to Stoltzfus and Conoly.

Although not an attorney, Barfield said lawyers retain him as an expert on Florida public records laws. He said he was part of the legal team that won a $1 million judgment against the Venice City Commission for failure to maintain adequate public records and for using private e-mails to discuss city business outside of the Florida Sunshine Laws.

Including attorney costs, the final judgment in that case was $1.5 million, Barfield said. An appeals judge later lowered the settlement to about $800,000.

His public records request could signal the first stage in a legal battle between the city and PAR.

Florida in the Sunshine

Florida’s open government laws are some of the nations most strict on public records and meetings.

According to those laws, all e-mails to and from elected and appointed officials and government staff of the same jurisdiction about public business are public record.

Additionally, elected and appointed officials are prohibited from discussing government business — either in person, via e-mail or telephone — with other elected and appointed officials of the same commission or board on an issue that might come to them for a vote, unless the required public notice is given in advance of such a meeting or conversation.

Florida law also prohibits board members from discussing an issue that might come before them for a vote in their official capacity, even though the elected and appointed official might sit on a different body within the same government.