The legal settlement considered by the County Commission behind closed doors over the past six months and announced at Tuesday’s commission meeting was not a Sunshine Law violation…technically…as we had asserted previously. But it certainly violated the spirit of Sunshine.
Three of the commissioners, Sarah Heard, Ed Fielding and Anne Scott were members of the Martin County Conservation Alliance, one of the parties in the 2011 failed legal challenge of the Valliere amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan, which was the legal case being debated in secret. Fielding had been an active board member of the group at the time of its suit against the county.
Those commissioners’ obvious bias regarding this special interest, environmental lobbying group indicate a complete lack of commitment to operating government with the openness and transparency that Martin County residents expect of their County Commission.
“Conservation” embedded in their name should not provide its membership a free pass to operating behind a shroud of secrecy and hypocrisy.
The case was over—all arguments had been heard and judgments rendered by three administrative law judges—but the case could not be officially closed until the court was notified of the amount determined for legal costs.
In addition to Martin County’s legal costs, the court had ordered the legal fees of two private companies be paid by environmental attorney Richard Grosso, who had challenged the Comp Plan amendment on behalf of the 1,000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance.
The court also ordered sanctions, which Martin County had not requested, for essentially wasting the court’s time after it had warned the plaintiffs not to appeal until they had properly established standing, according to court records. They proceeded anyway. The Florida Supreme Court ultimately refused to hear the case, remanding it to the lower court.
County Attorney Michael Durham did not release his calculations of costs until the final agenda for the Jan. 28 commission meeting had been posted, at which time the agreement to settle for 20 cents on the dollar also had already been determined. He calculated that the total costs to the county had been $12,270, but the actual costs—after deducting the budgeted amount already allocated to the legal department—was $3,520.
Grosso had offered a $2,500 settlement, and no more.
Durham compared the county’s settlement with Grosso as similar to the 20 cents on the dollar accepted by the private parties, Martin Island Way LLC and Island Way LLC, which estimated their attorneys’ fees and costs to be $35,000 to $38,000. Durham also surmised that the private companies did not want to incur additional legal costs by traveling to court in Tallahassee as their rationale for settling.
Commissioner Doug Smith cautioned that if the settlement was accepted by the commission, they were setting a new policy and a new precedent that the commission henceforth would accept less than actual costs in the event the county desired to recover legal expenses in other actions. Durham concurred.
In Durham’s calculations of actual costs, he deducted the already budgeted amount for the legal department. We wonder, however, what the county had to pay for hiring outside attorneys to cover Assistant County Attorney David Acton’s normal workload while he was involved in this particular legal challenge. Did citizens get full disclosure? They certainly did not get the opportunity to observe or to participate in the process.
But they will pay the bill.
We agree with Richard Geisinger of the Martin County Tax Association, who reminded the commissioners in his comments Tuesday that closed-door sessions should be reserved for ONLY extreme cases. This instance did not qualify as an emergency or a necessity for closed doors. The added, obvious bias of three commissioners screamed for openness, but their deaf ears trumped the transparency required for good government…yet again.