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Group limits itself to fact-finding

Members want to be sure their discussions about sensitive proposals don't violate state law.

By THERESA BLACKWELL, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2006

Pinellas County's new Environmental Science Forum, created to study hot-button projects proposed on environmental lands, had a choice.

Its 21 members could operate as an advisory group to County Administrator Steve Spratt, who proposed the forum this spring after county proposals for Brooker Creek and Fort De Soto ran into a buzz saw of opposition.

But if they did, Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law would prohibit them from discussing the projects outside their public meetings.

The other choice was to be a fact-finding group, not an advisory one. That would leave members free to have private discussions about the projects they are reviewing.

For now, at least, group members decided to be fact-finders, not advocates.

The forum's members were selected by the staff of the county's Environmental Management Department. About half of the group have environmental science backgrounds, and the rest are members of advocacy groups such as the Audubon Society.

At their first meeting in June, forum members chose two co-chairwomen: Holly Greening, chief scientist of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, and Darden Rice, who specializes in energy issues as the regional representative of the national Sierra Club.

Rice was one of three forum members who voted to operate under the Sunshine Law at the group's second meeting Aug. 10.

"I did push for us to operate under the Sunshine and the group voted not to do that," she said, "although the spirit of the group is to work with the public with as much transparency as possible."

The benefits, she said, are that they can speak freely with each other as they meet outside the forum at other meetings and in their professional lives.

"The drawbacks are that we cannot really make formal policy recommendations," she said. "We can't say, 'Leave the Brooker Creek Preserve alone.' "

But the forum's members could make adjustments later.

"There's still a great deal of good feeling in the room that we are going forward," Rice said. "It's very likely that as we go through this process, we may revisit this and decide to meet as a Sunshine body."

If so, the county will support them, said Managing Assistant County Attorney Jewel Cole. She provided an overview of the Sunshine Law at the Aug. 10 forum meeting. She said the county is experienced with operating under the Sunshine and can help the group if it decides to go that way.

"We will work it out if that's what happens in the end," Cole said. "We can make it work for them."

The next meeting, from 3 to 6 p.m. Sept. 7 at Weedon Island Preserve, will cover projects proposed in the Brooker Creek Preserve. Because the list is long, the discussion will likely continue to the next forum meeting, from 3 to 6 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center.

One item, pumping wells to water a golf course, has been withdrawn for now as a forum topic. Pinellas County Utilities is looking a little closer at the project in response to questions posed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. But it likely will be back.

So far, county officials are pleased with the forum.

"I'm very impressed with the caliber and enthusiasm these forum members have displayed in two short meetings," said Liz Warren, assistant county administrator. "They really care about the environment and it's going to be good for us."

Then she added, "Because we care, too."

[Last modified August 24, 2006, 07:10:50]

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