The State Attorney’s Office is investigating a complaint that five Mount Dora City Council members violated the state’s Open Meetings law.
“We are doing an inquiry,” said Mark Simpson, supervisor of the Public Interest Unit of the State Attorney’s Office. “There is no time limit.”
Simpson interviewed several City Council members, including the mayor, this week, according to city officials.
On April 17, City Council members Marie Rich, Michael Tedder, Cal Rolfson and Ryan Donovan and Mayor Cathy Hoechst interviewed two candidates for the position of city manager in private, one-on-one meetings. During those interviews, all five council members reportedly asked the candidates whether they favored having an assistant city manager.
Less than a month after the private discussions with candidates Michael Bonfield and Vince Pastue, the council voted to create an assistant city manager position.
Tom Eppich, former Mount Dora City Council member, filed a complaint along with 11 other individuals, including another former city council member and a Planning and Zoning Commission member.
“The main issue is the fact they discussed the matter privately with the candidates before they even discussed it publicly,” he said. “What are the odds that five people independently could dream up the same question to ask? The odds are astronomical. It is almost impossible they would be able to do that other than a common facilitator conduit or discussing it privately.”
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said the complaint raises questions.
“Anything related to public business is supposed to be discussed in the sunshine,” she said. “All of a sudden, there was a highly paid position created without any public discussion. Our elected officials are in positions of public trust. They are representing our interests and we have a right to know what they are doing and why they are doing it.”
Bonfield, one of the candidates, acknowledged in a phone interview he was asked by several City Council members about creating an assistant city manager position. Bonfield said council members suggested that Mark Reggentin, the city’s planning and development director, would be a “good candidate” for the position.
Reggentin withdrew his candidacy for city manager on April 14 after receiving two letters threatening him and his family. At the time of the interviews, Reggentin was serving as acting city manager.
Hoechst said the allegations are untrue and she welcomes an investigation.
She said she brought up the need for an assistant city manager in response to a citizen’s question at the April 7 City Council meeting.
“In hindsight, one of the things that the city does not have is an assistant city manager, which may not be a separate position,” Hoechst said at the April 7 meeting. “The reality is Mark has been for the last 10 years acting city manager when our city manager has been out of town. It is something we ought to consider and look at for the future.”
As a result, at the council’s next meeting on April 21, Donovan brought up the need for an assistant city manager position and asked staff to bring back information. This was followed by no discussion.
In an email to Human Resources Director Ken Bloom on April 27, Reggentin, as acting city manager, wrote about the job description for the position: “After speaking with the mayor and the few councilmen, they indicated that part of this description should include intergovernmental and legislative liaison responsibilities to lobby for projects and funding.”
Then, on May 5, council members voted 4-3, with council members Dennis Wood, Ed Rowlett and Hoechst dissenting, to create an assistant city manager position.
The complaint states that at the May 5 meeting Hoechst, Donovan and Rolfson all disclosed they had discussions with Pastue, who was chosen for the position, about the need for an assistant city manager during their private one-on-one meetings.
Like Hoechst, Rich and Tedder said in separate phone interviews they did nothing wrong.
“I would have never brought it up if it wasn’t brought up publicly,” she said. “It is a serious charge for an untruth.”
Tedder, however, said he did not ask in his interview with Bonfield and Pastue about the assistant city manager position.
“That was not on my mind when I was interviewing candidates,” he said. “The whole thing comes from people that want to discredit us. I am up for re-election.”
Donovan did not return a call for comment, and despite several attempts over three days, Reggentin also did not respond to phone calls from the Daily Commercial .
Rolfson said he did not want to comment at this time because the investigation is pending.
Joseph Little, emeritus law professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, said, “there is no question the so-called daisy chain of making decisions where somebody goes around and talks to people individually and gets an agreement on a matter prior to an official action on a matter is unlawful. The difficulty is in proving it.”
But Donald Jones, who teaches constitutional law at University of Miami School of Law, did not agree the violation is substantive.
“The mere fact that they interviewed candidates: That is not substantially a violation. You have to have some evidence of bad intent. If there is some evidence of collaboration and manipulation then it becomes a case.”
Wood said he supported the investigation.
“These are the sort of things that I think we are all very careful with sunshine laws,” he said. “It is pretty difficult for me to believe five people would have thought about this independently. If we are going to have the sunshine laws we have in Florida, we ought to be able to abide by them.”