August 22, 2016 – The Daytona Beach News-Journal
by Mark Harper
DeBary Interim City Manager Ron McLemore is reversing a decision to shut out the public from a City Council meeting this week at which council members will consider removing Mayor Clint Johnson from his office.
McLemore called the hearing, set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall, “one of the most important events in the city’s history.” City staff have alleged Johnson violated the city charter, and formal charges will be considered, while Johnson and his attorney, Doug Daniels, say he should remain in office.
Citing statements by Johnson urging the public to disrupt the meeting and, separately, to “purchase, practice and carry a firearm,” McLemore last week wrote a memo announcing the hearing would only be open to “persons essential to the hearing, i.e. city elected officials, attorneys, witnesses, appropriate city staff and those members of the public and others who have signed up to speak.”
McLemore had proposed opening the nearby Florence K. Little Town Hall and live streaming the meeting there to any interested public not allowed to attend the hearing in City Hall.
That changed Monday. McLemore told The News-Journal he is preparing a memo reversing course.
“Anyone can come in and when the Council Chambers are filled, we’ll overflow into the (town hall),” McLemore said. People in either location will be allowed to sign up to speak during the public-comment period, he added.
McLemore acknowledged “negative feedback” to the first plan was part of his decision, and added that a representative of the Florida Attorney General’s Office had spoken with DeBary City Attorney Kurt Ardaman.
Pat Gleason, special counsel for open government with the Attorney General’s Office, called closing a meeting “a serious matter,” in an email to The News-Journal Monday. “Has this meeting already occurred?” she asked. “If not I plan to discuss with the city attorney immediately…”
Ardaman didn’t return a call seeking comment Monday.
The mayor and his attorney, Daniels, continued their assault on the process Monday.
Johnson wrote in a memo that the manager and other council members “seem to have forgotten that the public, not them, owns the building. They are stating that the fear of violence and basic bad behavior from you, the residents, is the reason for this illegal effort. Outraged? You should be!”
…Legal experts questioned the city’s plan, saying Florida law does not allow any exceptions for such a meeting to be closed. Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said additional security measures can be taken, such as requiring those attending to walk through a metal detector, but the city manager cannot close a meeting.
Another prominent open-meetings law advocate, Ormond Beach attorney Jon Kaney, on Monday said DeBary would have risked whatever action it takes Wednesday being overturned by a court, similar to what happened in 2010 with the sale of the former Bert Fish Medical Center in New Smyrna Beach. The Southeast Volusia Hospital District sold the hospital to Florida Hospital in closed meetings, and the sale was later deemed void.
In other words, Kaney said, the city could have gone to all this trouble to vote the mayor out of office and have the decision overturned because of a Sunshine Law violation. “And he’s still the mayor,” Kaney said, failing to stifle a laugh.
“It’s bizarre. The Sunshine Law requires all these meetings to be open. Period,” said Kaney, a board member for the First Amendment Foundation and general counsel for the firm Kaney & Olivari. [READ MORE]