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Incoming commissioner agrees to obey Sunshine Law

At first, the Dade City commissioner-elect said the law didn't apply to her until she took office. The city manager and attorney didn't agree.

By MOLLY MOORHEAD
Published April 21, 2006


 

DADE CITY - Camille Hernandez, newly elected to the City Commission but not yet sworn in, had politicking in mind before taking her seat on the board May 9.

As a commissioner-elect, she said she had "untethered freedom" to communicate with other commissioners.

But City Manager Harold Sample advised her to use caution when talking to them because of Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, which bars elected officials from talking to each other about city business outside public meetings.

What followed was a tense e-mail exchange this week between Hernandez, Sample and City Attorney Karla Owens.

"My intention prior to our conversation was to continue politics as a commissioner-elect, unencumbered by concerns related to "Sunshine,"' Hernandez wrote in an e-mail Monday to Sample.

New to local politics, Hernandez ran on a campaign calling for openness in government. In a news release after her victory April 11, she said the days are gone when city business is carried out in private offices by a few people.

Sample and Owens insisted that the new commissioner-elect is bound by the law, citing a 1973 ruling that "members-elect of boards or commissions are subject to the Sunshine Law."

Hernandez consistently questioned them, suggesting that provision applied only to incumbents who are re-elected.

On Thursday she changed her mind after reading two attorney general opinions on the topic.

"I now agree with your understanding," Hernandez wrote to Sample and Owens. "Thank you for your assistance. I will moderate my behavior correctly."

Reached Thursday, Hernandez said the issue was resolved. She did not say what she had planned to talk to other commissioners about.

"I just had a question about the clarification (of the law)," she said. "My whole dialogue with Harold and Karla was based on just simply what the clarification was."

Sample said he and Owens advised Hernandez based on their understanding of the law, which was confirmed by Assistant Attorney General Patricia Gleason, a Sunshine Law expert.

Beyond that advice, Sample said it's incumbent on elected officials to make sure they comply.

"This is not a city liability issue. This is an issue for the commissioners," he said. "We have given guidance; however, we do not represent them individually."

Sample and Hernandez shared with the other four commissioners copies of their last two e-mails, which also were obtained by the St. Petersburg Times. In her final note, Hernandez praised the transparency.

She wrote: "It's reassuring you shared this conversation with the other commissioners and the press as an open discussion is always healthy."

[Last modified April 21, 2006, 08:07:47]


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