The News-Press by Thyrie Bland
April 13, 2017
There probably aren’t any public officials in Florida who don’t know this: When they discuss or conduct public business, it must be done in an open meeting.
But when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was asked to investigate allegations that two Florida Gulf Coast University trustees discussed the drafting of a strategic plan behind-closed-doors, the FDLE decided that the board members did not violate a state statute.
The requirement that public officials only discuss business that could come before their boards in an open meeting is in the state Constitution, but “there is no enforcement provision for violations of that section of the (state) Constitution,” FDLE spokesman Sterling Ivey said.
The Florida Board of Governors’ inspector general’s office referred the case to the FDLE in January after a whistle-blower made eight allegations against FGCU trustees. The office wrote in an 81-page report that it sustained two allegations — a Sunshine Law violation and the improper election of the board’s vice president.
The inspector general’s office, believing that a criminal violation had occurred, reported the July 7, 2016, meeting that took place between FGCU President Wilson Brashaw, Provost Ron Toll and board members Dudley Goodlette and Shawn Felton to the FDLE.
The inspector general’s office alleged the trustees violated a Florida statute that says all board meetings in which official acts are to be taken should be open to the public. The office also cited the part of the statute that says it is a second-degree misdemeanor for a public official to knowingly attend a meeting that is not held in accordance with the law.
Sunshine violations also can be handled in civil court.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said it does not seem that FDLE is taking into account how the Florida Constitution and state law regarding the public’s access to meetings have been interpreted and applied by courts.
“The right of access applies to any meeting where business is to be transacted or discussed, so they don’t have to take action,” Petersen said. “I mean this is sort of, unfortunately, I think, … a lack of understanding of the law.”
Felton said there was not any malicious intent when he and Goodlette met with Bradshaw and Toll. He said FDLE’s conclusion that he and Goodlette didn’t break state law shows that.
“I think, ultimately, this will do a lot for this board in terms of ensuring that new trustees coming along are informed better on the policies and procedures of this,” Felton said.
Petersen called the FDLE’s conclusion “baloney.”
“Regardless of the type, whether it was unintentional or intentional, it was a clear a violation because there is documentation that shows that members of the board discussed board business without providing notice and without allowing the public to participate and without presumably taking minutes,” she said.
The purpose of the meeting between Bradshaw, Toll and the trustees was to address two things:
►Concerns Bradshaw brought up in June regarding communications between trustees and school administrators, faculty, and staff.
►The roles and responsibilities of trustees and administrators with regard to FGCU’s strategic planning process.
“Records reviewed reveal that the meeting also included discussions of the content and revision of the strategic plan document, which … was still under consideration at the time of the meeting,” according to the inspector general’s report.
When Bradshaw first brought up his concerns, he recommended a meeting between Felton and Toll to discuss the issues. The meeting never happened.
When the July 7 meeting was scheduled, there was some internal discussion about whether the public should be made aware of the meeting, according to the report.
The state Constitution requires that meetings of all collegial public bodies in which official acts are taken or at which public business is discussed be open to the public.
State law requires that minutes be taken during the meetings and that the minutes be made available to the public.
No minutes were taken during the July 7 meeting, according to the inspector general’s report.
Goodlette, a former state representative, said if the conversation during last year’s meeting had started to veer toward him and Felton making some sort of decision, “the light would have gone off with me that we needed to notice that meeting.”
“I just wasn’t thinking of this being a conversation that had anything to do with our relationship as board members,” Goodlette said. “It was sorting out the issues that we were dealing with on the strategic plan.”
He said if the public had been at the meeting, nothing about it would have changed.
“There was nothing secretive,” he said. “It was an honest error on my part not to have realized that (it should have been a public meeting).” [READ MORE]