MANATEE -- Four of Manatee County’s five school board members say they regret having private meetings with an outside attorney that experts say likely violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.
But board members don’t believe they violated the law and to Barbara Peterson, president of Florida’ First Amendment Foundation, that’s disturbing.
Peterson, who has studied public access laws and advised government bodies on them for two decades, says it appears that neither Manatee’s school board members nor its superintendent understand that they’ve likely broken the law.
“Ultimately only a court can make a determination whether the Sunshine Law has been violated,” Peterson said. “But case law says these kinds of meetings have been found to violate the law ... We want to make sure our elected officials are fully aware of their obligations under the law.”
In mid-July, each of the board members held separate, one-on-one meetings with Cliff Walters, an outside attorney. The meetings came after Gause, formerly the board chair, sought Walters’ advice on how to handle growing tension between some board members and school board attorney John Bowen.
Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal, who sat in on the original meeting between Gause and Walters, decided the other board members needed the same information and arranged Walters’ meetings with the other four board members within a five-day period.
Julie Aranibar, Karen Carpenter, Bob Gause and Harry Kinnan all say they regret participating in the meetings. Barbara Harvey said she did not regret the meetings.
Board members expressed their regret in different ways. Aranibar said she “did not understand” why board members didn’t just meet publicly about Bowen and said she plans in the future to always seek her private attorney’s advice. Gause and Kinnan said, in hindsight, they wish they would have handled the topic of dissatisfaction with Bowen differently than meeting privately with Walters.
“Hindsight is always 20/20,” said Kinnan, the current board chair. “In retrospect you wish things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did.”
Carpenter is going one step further: She has asked McGonegal and Kinnan to place a discussion of Bowen on the agenda of a future school board meeting.
Still, board members and McGonegal remain convinced they did not violate the Sunshine Law.
“I don’t think this is a violation,” McGonegal said. “Neither Mr. Walters nor myself were acting as a conduit. Every one of those conversations was different.” McGonegal also said he felt the board members benefited from receiving Walters’ advice.
“There wasn’t any attempt to direct any board members as to what they should or shouldn’t do,” said Gause.
Other board members echoed Gause, saying that because they didn’t discuss a pending vote, didn’t meet privately with each other, or use Walters to direct each other on future action, there was no violation.
Walters referred all inquiries to school district officials.
But Peterson said the “rapid-fire” nature of the one-on-one gatherings, and the fact that the attorney who met with each board member already “has all the information he needs,” makes the separate gatherings “a de facto meeting.”
Peterson also said the law’s requirement of openness doesn’t just apply to votes.
“The Sunshine Law applies to all discussions of public business, to the entire deliberative process where business is to be transacted or discussed,” she said. “It doesn’t apply just to meetings where there’s action. The intent of the law is to allow the public access to the entire deliberative process.”
To know for sure if there is a violation, a complaint would have to be filed with the State Attorney General’s Office, Peterson said.
Bowen has been the focus of concern from Aranibar and Carpenter, who both contend he has given the school board poor or inaccurate advice on topics that included how to address the school district’s health insurance deficit and whether to litigate or settle cases. Kinnan and Harvey, by contrast, say they are satisfied and pleased with Bowen’s advice.
Bowen said he advised the board against the one-on-one meetings after he found out about the conversations. But, he added, he didn’t have an opportunity to provide that advice until after the meetings had already occurred.
“I feel the board can legitimately look into an issue. I don’t have a problem with that at all,” he said. “A workshop would have been the way to handle it.”
Bowen was the attorney for the Orange County School District in 1979 during a case that helped build a court record determining that rapid-fire, individual meetings are often Sunshine Law violations.