May 25, 2016 – Daytona Beach News-Journal
by Dinah Voyles Pulver
State law enforcement agents descended on DeBary City Hall Wednesday morning with a search warrant.
When they left nearly five hours later, they took with them more than 37,000 emails between the city manager and council members. The emails included all correspondence related to the city’s dealings with the St. Johns River Water Management District over a proposed development on conservation land near the SunRail station.
The warrant, delivered by agents from the State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, stated Circuit Judge Kathryn Weston found probable cause that City Manager Dan Parrott violated the Sunshine Law. Other than confirming State Attorney’s Office agents were at City Hall, spokesman Spencer Hathaway said he could not comment on the active criminal investigation. FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said the State Attorney’s Office was taking the lead.
The raid comes amidst an ongoing News-Journal investigation into the city’s development proposal and its work with a consulting business owned by John Miklos, the chairman of the St. Johns River Water Management District board, to obtain 102 acres the district owns near the rail station.
Through its engineering firm, Pegasus Engineering, the city hired Bio-Tech Consulting and its president, Miklos, to first assess the land, and then to obtain the necessary permits to use the land for the city’s proposed transit-oriented development. A conceptual plan for the entire 300-acre development, including the 102 acres, calls for 2,400 homes and more than 200,000 square feet of non-residential space.
Controversy has roiled in the city for months. The attempt to use the conservation land has generated huge opposition from city residents, triggering citizen requests to the State Attorney’s office and the Florida Commission on Ethics to investigate. Also, Parrott and members of the City Council have been feuding with Mayor Clint Johnson over public records and other issues related to Johnson’s office. An emergency court hearing is scheduled today on Johnson’s request for a temporary injunction to stop DeBary from having a June 1 hearing to remove him from office.
In a May 10 story, the News-Journal reported that Barbara Petersen of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation had concluded that a May 4 email Parrott sent to four City Council members likely violated the Sunshine Law because it constituted a meeting under the law. In the email, Parrott asked the council members for their comments and suggestions on a draft letter he was sending to Ann Shortelle, the district’s executive director.
Council members are not allowed to discuss a letter via email, Petersen said. If the manager needed a response quickly, she said, he should have called an emergency meeting.
Previously, Parrott has stated the Sunshine Law was not violated. On Wednesday, he said he is sure the allegations will be shown not to be true.
“I take responsibility for my own actions, so we’re going to give them everything they want,” said Parrott. “I’m going to cooperate fully.”
The law states any public officer who violates the Sunshine Law is guilty of a noncriminal infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $500, according to the First Amendment Foundation’s Government-in-the-Sunshine manual. Any member of a board or commission who knowingly attends a meeting not held in accordance with the Sunshine Law is guilty of a second degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500, and could be removed or suspended from office, Petersen said Wednesday night.
The DeBary controversy is “such a can of worms,” she said. “It’s almost like a Monty Python skit.”
“We have both ethics issues and really serious Sunshine issues,” Petersen said. “The ties are too close and too tight on this land deal.
“The commissioners are elected in a public trust. The city manager has an equal responsibility, in terms of trust,” she said. “I’m glad the state attorney is pursuing this. It adds a real level of seriousness to the whole issue.” [READ MORE]