GAINESVILLE – After a five month investigation, in a statement released Tuesday, State Attorney Bill Cervone said Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) had not violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.
The investigation was the result of allegations by Ward Scott, an Alachua resident and former candidate for county commission. Among Scott’s allegations were that the BOCC uses informal meetings to discuss matters, reach conclusions and make decisions on which they will later take a formal vote. Cervone, however, says no laws were broken.
“Each of the meetings in question was held in a completely open and public setting, with citizens and media able to attend.
“Each was recorded and resulted in minutes being taken.
“Each complied with the letter of the law as well as with applicable provisions of the County Commission's own rules and by-laws,” Cervone wrote of the four specific meetings reportedly cited by Scott’s complaint.
Cervone also noted that the findings are not only that of his office, but of others as well saying, “They are shared by Pat Gleason, an Assistant Attorney General [of Florida]…”
“My office consulted with Ms. Gleason, who reviewed everything involved, not because of any ambiguity or uncertainty but because she is an independent expert in these matters.
“Her conclusion, as was mine, is that no criminal violation has occurred,” Cervone wrote.
Cervone seemingly attempts to quell what he views as hype by Scott and others who have criticized the BOCC for allegedly reaching conclusive decisions before formal hearings.
“Much has been made by the complainants about the ‘crystallization’ of votes at informal meetings.
“There is nothing illegal about any discussions between Commissioners at public, noticed meetings, even if those discussions reference pending votes,” he said.
Cervone said crystallization condemns the commission secretly talking about and agreeing upon a vote. But, he said, commissioners discussing their positions and intended or likely votes is not prohibited.
“Nothing precludes Commissioners from such public discussion and debate about their positions.
“Indeed, it would be foolish to suggest that Commissioners could not have a public dialogue about their positions and intentions on issues coming before them for a vote,” said Cervone.
In a follow-up response to Cervone, Scott said the state attorney’s conclusion misses the point.
Scott notes that the Sunshine Law requires the BOCC to provide “reasonable notice” of meetings and that courts interpreting the statute have underscored the principle of due process.
“A list of meetings of the week doesn’t fly,” Scott wrote.
“While informal meetings were technically noticed, the style of notice kept citizens in the dark about serious business before the commission, like the gas tax.
“Therefore the notice was not ‘reasonable.’
“Due process was not provided,” Scott contended.
He was also critical of how the County kept records of the meetings saying, “while minutes were technically kept, they did not reflect the actual decisions and behaviors of the commissioners,” Scott said, “This behavior could only be detected on the audios, if you knew about them.”
Scott and Cervone both noted, however, that since the issue had been pressed, the BOCC has opted to televise and provide agendas for informal meetings.
Cervone’s conclusion and statement Tuesday comes on the heels of a Dec. 7 request by Scott to have the investigation turned over to an outside agency.
“I hereby request that your office provide me with the necessary instructions to request that your formal investigation now be transferred to the proper agency of the State of Florida, so that this investigation can move on as unencumbered by case load, or politics, as possible,” Scott said in an e-mail to Cervone’s office.
Scott reiterated in his response Tuesday that he wants the matter reviewed by a party outside of Alachua County.