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The Buzz 5/17/12

SUNSHINE LAW CLASH A Pensacola City Council member has raised the question of Sunshine Law violations. The official is claiming that the state’s open-government laws were violated via electronic communications, or e-mails.

“The Sunshine Law violation claim was made by a Councilmember and the alleged violator is the City Administrator; therefore, the Mayor thought it more appropriate to have your office investigate the matter,” City Attorney Jim Messer wrote to State Attorney Bill Eddins in a May 3 letter.

Councilwoman Maren DeWeese has charged that City Administrator Bill Reynolds violated the state’s Sunshine Law when he replied to an email the councilwoman had sent him. DeWeese had contacted Reynolds regarding a matter before the city’s Parks and Recreation subcommittee.

“The response was addressed to Ms. DeWeese, and was copied to those whom she had originally copied, with the deletion of some junior staff and the addition of Mayor Hayward,” Reynolds wrote in an affidavit dated May 2. “I included in the response some comments by the chair of the committee, Mr. Jake Renfroe …”

Messer explained today that DeWeese’s accusation was two-fold: the councilwoman has charged that Renfroe violated the Sunshine Law by communicating via e-mail with members of the Parks and Recreation board, and that Reynolds violated the law by forwarding the email message again to another board member.

The city attorney said that he could not discuss the accusations in-depth due to the ongoing State Attorney investigation.

“This may not be one of those cases where I can go drama-queen on you,” Messer said.

The attorney explained that he did not feel that Renfroe had violated the Sunshine Law, due to the fact that his e-mail did not invite discussion among board members. Messer said the accusation against Reynolds—that he served as a conduit of information—would be better handled at the state level.

“Now, I don’t know if Reynolds was a conduit or not,” Messer said. “That’s for the State Attorney.”

DeWeese laid out her argument in a May 2 email.

“Mr. Messer will need to weigh in on this matter of Sunshine law and clarify the issue of a conduit role you may have played in forwarding this information from one board member to another,” the councilwoman wrote. “I imagine this is an inadvertent communication on your part.”

In e-mails to DeWeese, Reynolds maintained that he was unaware his correspondence was sent to questionable individuals: “… to make it very easy for you, I suggest that you forward your concerns to the state directly.”

Pensacola City Administrator Bill Reynolds told the IN that he believes that the Sunshine Law accusation being levied against him will be proved unfounded.

The city administrator declined to discuss specifics because the matter is currently under investigation.

“I will say I’m very confident I did nothing wrong,” Reynolds summarized.
Messer said that he didn’t expect the issue to come up during today’s Committee of the Whole meeting. The city attorney also said he did not know how long it would take to get an opinion from the state.

“I honestly have never done this before,” Messer said. “I’m guessing less than 30 days.”

BIG BOYS AND GIRLS CLASH WITH MAYOR The continuing back-and-forth between the Pensacola City Council and Mayor Ashton Hayward has found its newest venue: the audit selection committee.

“I almost wish I didn’t care,” Councilwoman Maren DeWeese charged onto the battlefield. “It’d been a lot easier to let this shuttle on by us.”

The council’s Committee of the Whole meeting on May 7 tackled procedural issues regarding the annual audit and also evolved into a broader, and recurring, discussion about the city’s balance of power. DeWeese encouraged her fellow council members to “stand up, dust ourselves off, be big boys and girls” and to “not let the mayor have all the power.”

At issue was the composition of the city’s audit selection committee, as well as the RFP process. DeWeese argued that the committee—not solely city staff—should have input into the request for RFPs and also felt that the committee’s composition should be reevaluated.

“It’s for us to appoint the entire committee, it is our decision,” the councilwoman said. “This is a legislative function.”

In February, the city council approved selecting an external auditor via an RFP (Request for Proposals) process. The audit selection committee was to be comprised of a council member, the city’s chief financial officer, a member of city staff and a citizen appointed by the mayor.

Prior to the meeting, DeWeese had laid out her argument in a series of letters to city administration. She contended that the current committee make-up could potentially present a “taint to the auditor selection process” and requested that the RFP process—which began at the end of March and wrapped up earlier this month—be reassessed.

“If the process moves forward before council takes up the issue, I consider this to be an example of management override of internal controls …” DeWeese wrote.

Pensacola City Administrator Bill Reynolds responded that the mayor’s office was “disinclined to stop that process.” In a letter to the council, he conceded that DeWeese was correct that the “audit selection committee should have input into the requirements of the RFP per state law,” but said “all substantive elements that the statute outlines are included in the RFP.”

“The procedural defect in the action as outlined by the councilwoman can be easily cured by having the constituted committee ratify the actions previously taken,” Reynolds wrote to the council in a May 7 letter.

When the issue came up during this week’s COW meeting, council members were less interested in ratifying past actions and more intent on discussing the process.

“This process is terribly flawed,” said Councilwoman Sherri Myers, asking why Mayor Hayward was so heavily involved in the process. “There is no authority, whatsoever, anywhere, for the audit committee to submit anything to the mayor for him to submit his recommendations to the city council for their approval.”
Council members turned to City Attorney Jim Messer for some clarification.

“Is that true?” asked Vice Chairman Ronald Townsend.

“If the question is, as Councilwoman Myers said, ‘is there any reference to the mayor in either the law or the policy?’ No,” Messer said, adding that the council could remedy the situation by ratifying past actions.

The council did not seem to be warming up to the concept of giving its blessing to the already-commenced RFP process. The board continued to question Messer on specifics.

“Basically, we did not follow our policy, is that correct?” said Councilman Larry B. Johnson.

“Most of the requirements of the law have been followed,” Messer said. “However, if you’re asking me if all the requirements of the law have been followed, then no.”

“If we don’t ratify it as you just said, we’re really setting ourselves up for a legal challenge,” Johnson said, anticipating responses from firms already engaged in the RFP process.

“What I’m saying is, we don’t know that yet,” Messer said, adding that such an issue could be avoided by ratification.

In the end, the council decided to scrap its February 23 decision and to place two council members and two council-appointed citizens to the audit committee. Selecting the citizens may prove easier than finding willing council members.

DeWeese, who had previously stated that she would not serve on the committee due to personal and past professional relationships she and her husband have with potential auditors, started the nomination process by offering up Councilman P.C. Wu.

“He just declined,” said Townsend, as Wu began shaking his head as soon as the nomination was made.

“Well, I declined three times,” DeWeese countered.

Councilman Johnson was nominated next. He, too, bowed out.

“At this time,” he said, “I’m just overloaded.”

Councilwoman Megan Pratt’s name was thrown into the hat next.

“I don’t do numbers,” Pratt said.

The other council members, however, wouldn’t let Pratt loose and placed her on the audit committee. Upon realizing that no one else seemed eager to take the number two slot, Townsend suggested Chairman Sam Hall—who was not present for Monday’s meeting—for the post.

“He’ll be OK with that,” Townsend laughed.