Democracy dies behind closed doors

A controversial item—to forgive the court-ordered sanctions and payment of the county’s attorney fees levied against the Martin County Conservation Alliance and the 1,000 Friends of Florida—was attached as a supplemental memo to the previously posted county commission agenda for its Dec. 3 meeting during the busiest travel week of the year, Thanksgiving, also the first day of Hanukkah this year.

It could be coincidental that a time was chosen that many residents probably were not paying as close attention as they might be ordinarily, but even if so, we think the timing is lousy. More people should know it’s happening, not fewer.

We also think it’s lousy that county attorney Michael Durham used “attorney-client” privilege to arrange yet another behind-closed-door session to discuss the results of his “negotiations” with the affected parties, including the Everglades Law Center’s Richard Grosso, who represented the failed suit against Martin County and asked the county for “forgiveness” so the Martin County Conservation Alliance and the 1,000 Friends of Florida would not have to pay either the sanctions or the county’s attorney fees.

The suit is over. An administrative law judge made his decision, saying the plaintiffs had no standing and that the suit should not have been filed. It seems to us that for Mr. Durham to invoke an attorney-client privilege at this stage appears simply to circumvent the state’s Sunshine Law, which requires government meetings be conducted “in the sunshine” so as not to be conducive to back-room deals.

We’re uncomfortable with the fact that a former member of the Martin County Conservation Alliance board of directors, Commissioner Ed Fielding, testified as a witness during that administrative hearing; thus, we know he’s prejudiced. Even though he was not a county commissioner when he testified, and he resigned from their board after he was elected to the commission, it seems to us that his obvious prejudicial status would also demand that Sunshine Laws be observed judiciously.

No question this is a discussion that needs to be conducted publicly, not in a back room, and we applaud Commissioner Doug Smith, who refused to participate in the previous, private “attorney-client session,” for recognizing and insisting that this conversation be open to public scrutiny and public participation.

We also do not agree with the premise revealed in attorney Ginny Sherlock’s unrelenting barrage of emails to the commissioners, as well as in her more surreptitiously placed messages through various other outlets and espoused by her minions, that equate the forgiveness of these court-ordered sanctions as being the same as the commission’s practice of forgiving code enforcement fines. What a joke.

The closest similarity, if you can even call it that, is that both court sanctions and code enforcement fines are punitive. But the similarity ends there.

The only reason that “forgiveness” of the payment of attorney fees and court-ordered fines is even being considered by a commission so cash strapped that it just denied the Rio Community Redevelopment Area’s request to use their own CRA funds to purchase public art for their new roundabout and is seriously considering imposing an additional county-wide sales tax is because these “conservationists” are Commission Chair Sarah Heard’s friends on whose support she depends to get re-elected. All her “reasons” that claim “public good” are an absolute stretch of the facts.

The administrative law judge deemed that this had been a frivolous lawsuit, which was confirmed through research by the Martin County Taxpayers Association. They wrote a letter to Commissioner Heard recently that the county should NOT forgive the sanctions because of the number of failed suits brought against Martin County by these organizations that had resulted in unwarranted costs to

They determined that the Martin County Conservation Alliance and the 1,000 Friends of Florida SHOULD pay both the sanctions and the county’s attorney fees to defend itself.

We agree. We also believe the county’s door needs to be open to the sunshine.