The Daytona Beach News-Journal by Dustin Wyatt
December 16, 2018
Without any notice to the public, the city manager, Tracey Barlow, was out — to the surprise, and anger, of some residents. Weeks later, when the five-member council reconvened and Councilman Gary Conroy proposed going off the agenda to rename a street, the head of the city’s law firm pumped the brakes.
“I don’t know if it’s been a past practice of raising issues that aren’t on the agenda and taking action … but the Attorney General has issued many opinions that that is highly disfavored,” attorney Ted Doran said. “This is symbolic of a situation that you’ve fallen into that you have to get out of.”
Edgewater’s firing of its manager isn’t the only recent example of times a local government body has gone off-script with controversial decisions.
It happened in September when Palm Coast fired its city manager, Jim Landon. It happened in October when the Volusia County School Board voted to extend Superintendent Tom Russell’s contract, days after the teacher’s union called for a “change in leadership.” And it happened earlier this month when the Volusia County Council moved to seek a legal opinion regarding Florida’s Amendment 10, a vote that set off a week’s worth of name-calling and accusations of a lack of transparency from Sheriff Mike Chitwood.
None of the votes should have happened, according to Barbara Petersen, an attorney who serves as president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, an organization that fights to protect the public’s right to know.
While courts have determined that it’s not necessarily illegal for a government to take up and vote on issues off the agenda, “it is not good policy,” she wrote in an email.
“We have a representational government,” Petersen said. “How do those who are elected to represent our interests know what we think if we don’t have an opportunity to speak?”
The courts have ruled that an agenda is not required and that boards are free to take up and vote on issues that were not included in the notice of a meeting or the agenda, Petersen said. However, she’s unsure how that ruling squares with a newer requirement under state statute.
It reads, in part: “Members of the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard on a proposition before a board or commission.”
“That law was passed just a few years ago,” Petersen said, “and the court opinions that say an agenda is not required are much older.”
County Attorney Dan Eckert, who suggested the Amendment 10 legal fight near the close of the Dec. 4 council meeting, said the vote was within the law.
Amendment 10 is a measure approved by Florida voters that would give officials like Chitwood more authority over their department budgets and other things, but it would circumvent parts of Volusia County’s charter, approved by local voters in 1970.
The County wants a judge to determine if the amendment’s provisions apply to Volusia County. Eckert contends that the amendment failed to specify whether its effects are retroactive and argues that only a vote by Volusia’s own residents can alter its charter.
The council voted 6-1 to move forward with a court challenge. It was legal, Eckert said.