Sunshine Law concerns creep into Jax Council VP race - Florida Politics

Sunshine Law concerns creep into Jax Council VP race

The race for Jacksonville City Council Vice President is on, and even before the first noticed pledge meetings on Wednesday, one candidate already has a pledge of support.

Even as Republican Councilman Sam Newby sent in his pledge letter, word was he already had received the pledge of fellow Republican Al Ferraro.

Ferraro confirmed his support of Newby in a conversation with this outlet Tuesday evening before the Council meeting.

While there certainly is an advantage to getting pledges early in what looks to be a crowded race, pledges are supposed to be rendered in noticed meetings. The idea is to create a transparent process, one of which the public is aware.

Ethics Director Carla Miller has sent out emails asserting best practices on this matter in recent years, though there is some thought that they are toothless — non-binding guidance, nothing more.

After this article ran,

Councilman Scott Wilson — who is mulling a run for VP for the second straight year — noted the lack of transparency in a conversation with this reporter.

I guess I missed the noticed meeting,” Wilson asserted Tuesday evening. “I don’t think they understand the sunshine law. Why would you break the law and tell the media?”

Wilson’s run in 2017 was characterized by a process that seemed to happen outside of the public eye. Going into the vote, roughly half the Council was unpledged; those votes went to Wilson’s opponent, Aaron Bowman.

Bowman’s day job is at VP of JAXUSA, the business recruitment arm of the politically active Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

“If I had known how they felt,” Wilson said of the 14 who voted for Bowman in 2017, “I would have withdrawn.”

Indeed, the pledge process is intended to offer clarity. But 2017 saw issues with that questioned even contemporaneously, specifically in the race for Council President.

Some perceived irregularities: among them, a group of council members voting in a “pack,” which ultimately swung the election toward current Council President Anna Brosche; and a breakfast meeting between Brosche, two other supporters, and some others that also raised the hackles of some council members on the other side.

Then Council President Lori Boyer — the only attorney on the 19 person council — noted that the “optics” suffered from activity outside of noticed meetings.

“You’re not allowed to talk about something like ‘the race’,” Boyer asserted.

Jacksonville City Council members were briefed on the Sunshine Law; notably, via a 27-page PowerPoint from Ethics Director Miller in 2015.

The document boils down to urging Councilors to err on the side of transparency: a “reminder to be alert and to
continually be on your toes as to the Sunshine laws.”

“Beware…..You could have blind spots that will get you in trouble down the line,” the PowerPoint adds.

“How you come to a decision, the thinking process,” the PowerPoint continues, “should be done at the noticed meeting so the public can see how you got to your decision. If it is all decided somehow ahead of time, if you know how it is going to turn out…. how did that happen?”

The document contends that “city business” falls under the Sunshine Law rubric, a designation that would seem to include a Council leadership race: “Where is the real meeting? What is being shown to the public? Or is there a “subterranean meeting” going on where the real decisions are being made outside of the noticed meeting and out of public view? This is not government in the Sunshine.”

Miller attempted to hammer home the potential consequences of Sunshine Law issues in ALL CAPS: “THEN, WE SEE PRESS, LAWSUITS, POTENTIAL SUSPENSIONS OF YOUR OFFICE AND LEGAL FEES. But worse, LOSS OF TRUST OF OUR CITIZENS.”

In 2015, Council members dealt with what we called “Text-ghazi,” regarding texting with a union head to achieve a specific outcome on budget night. This led to discussion of how to best archive texts, to avoid potential issues like that in the future, and other such accountability measures.

Since then, the Sunshine Law has become less of a present concern, if Council Leadership races are any indication.

Miller’s emails note that pledges must be conferred at a notice meeting or on the day of the vote. Simply signing a pledge letter does not comply with Sunshine Law requirements.

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