Commission’s Sunshine Law violations targeted

It’s high time someone besides Martin County Currents and Sunshine State News speaks out about the impropriety of some Martin County commissioners meeting behind closed doors with the county attorney to discuss a closed legal case.

The Pacific Legal Foundation—a 40-year-old public interest firm known for winning its cases to protect US landowners against excessive government regulation and the loss of private property rights—questioned this week not only the county commission’s closed-door sessions, but also the apparent disregard of Florida’s Public Records Laws by two commissioners, Ed Fielding and Sarah Heard, for failing to report and protect their private electronic communications used to conduct public business.

If the allegations by Lake Point Water Restoration Project attorneys prove accurate regarding the “manipulation” or deliberate destruction of Fielding’s and Heard’s secret emails with environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla, both commissioners also are likely to face criminal charges, as well as ethics violations.

(Heard’s attorney, being paid for by Martin County taxpayers, apparently will argue that Hurchalla, an unpaid volunteer, was acting simply as a citizen, thus their private correspondence is not subject to Florida’s Public Records laws. Whom are they trying to kid?)

In their Jan. 17 letter to county Administrator Taryn Kryzda, the Pacific Legal Foundation made nine requests for what should be all public documents, and included requests not only for commissioner emails from their private computers, but the text messages from their cell phones pertaining to public business.

Although Florida’s stringent Public Records Law was written in 1995, before the widespread use of cell phones and computers, it states that the law applies to all records “regardless of physical form, characteristics or means of transmission.”

The closed legal case at the center of Pacific Legal’s query is that of attorney Richard Grosso’s appeal of the 1,000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance’s failed lawsuit against Martin County regarding an amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and the District Court of Appeal awarded Martin County its attorney fees for defending itself, as well as additional sanctions due to the “frivolous nature” of the appeal.

At least three closed-door sessions have been held following environmental attorney Ginny Sherlock’s impassioned pleas for the County Commission to reject the court-ordered sanctions and forgive attorney fees to be paid by Grosso, Everglades Law Center, 1,000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance.

The only one who refrained from taking part in the closed-door sessions was Commissioner Doug Smith.

Since Fielding had been a member of one of the groups who took part in the lawsuit against the county, many residents were surprised to see that he did not recuse himself from the discussions, although technically a conflict of interest no longer exists because he resigned his membership after his election. He and Heard support Sherlock’s proposal to rescind, at least in part, the District Court’s order to impose sanctions and payment of attorneys’ fees.

Joining residents’ objections to turning down a reimbursement of funds at a time that the cash-strapped county is imposing higher taxes, the Martin County Taxpayers Association, which conducted its own, independent investigation, also spoke out against the commission’s consideration of countermanding the judge’s order.

The Association reported in a published column that it had found a history of frivolous lawsuits against the county by these same parties—at an undetermined cost—and thus encouraged the County Commission to abide by the District Court orders out of respect to taxpayers.

The Pacific Legal Foundation echoed the Association’s admonition not to forfeit the county’s “entitlement to public funds,” although as yet no one seems to know how much that is, and further stated that the county is setting a “dangerous, if not illegal” precedent by holding meetings of public concern behind closed doors, according to Pacific Legal attorney, Christina Martin.

The case is on the County Commission agenda for its Tuesday, Jan. 28, meeting, so it appears that Martin County residents finally will hear how much of their money the commission intends to give away.

Much more information regarding the secret emails among Hurchalla, Fielding and Heard, also being targeted by Pacific Legal, will be revealed as Lake Point’s case against Hurchalla proceeds through the courts over the next few months. Lake Point began a deposition of Hurchalla in November, and has requested of the court that Heard also be deposed to explain how her emails got deleted from her web-based account, which forms the crux of Lake Point’s case against Hurchalla for tortious interference.

Lake Point contends that Hurchalla, through these secret emails to the county commissioners, disseminated false information that resulted in Martin County’s and the South Florida Water Management District’s votes to terminate their Lake Point contracts.

This is not a case of environmentalists versus developers, although it’s already framed as such. This is a matter of whether or not we are who we say we are. Florida adopted the most stringent Public Records laws in the country, bolstered further by its Sunshine Laws, because we believe the only good government is open government.

Now we have two commissioners who give frequent lip service to transparency and government in the sunshine, then act as if they are exempt. Martin County deserves better.

(Link to the letter:)

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