Confusion over Florida Sunshine Law prompts Manatee County Commission training session

skennedy@bradenton.comSeptember 11, 2013 

MANATEE -- Manatee County commissioners asked for a legal briefing Tuesday on Florida's open records laws when using electronic media.

County Attorney Mickey Palmer said he will host a training session after some commissioners expressed confusion about what is allowable when texting on a smartphone or e-mailing about county business.

County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino asked her fellow commissioners to stop e-mailing and texting her. She requested all messages be sent through her assistant.

"You know what kind of predicament I'm in right now," she told the commissioners, referring to a civil lawsuit that named her alleging Sunshine Law violations.

The suit involving DiSabatino's personal e-mail account was filed earlier this year, and requested declaratory and injunctive relief for alleged failure to comply with state open records law.Sarasota legal consultant Michael Barfield requested documents from DiSabatino seeking any electronic communication, including e-mails, text messages and social media messages from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, 2012, with certain words in them, according to the complaint.

The situation came to Barfield's attention after she and former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash acknowledged meeting last fall after adjournment of the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization Board, Barfield said at the time.

The suit sought electronic messages relating to the incident, which it claimed were incomplete, illegible and not provided in digital format as requested, court records said. DiSabatino says she is innocent, and has hired a lawyer to represent her, Ralf Brookes. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she takes pictures of text messages she gets on her smartphone, and forwards them to fellow commissioners' official e-mail accounts.

"I copy everything to my county e-mail address," she added.

County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said she doesn't text at all about county business.

"I think that's probably a good rule to have," Baugh said.

Commission Chairman Larry Bustle said as long as there is no personal comment added to a forwarded e-mai: "What's the big deal?"

County Commissioner John Chappie said the issue concerns some commissioners more than others, adding that each commissioner's preference should be respected.

As for correct information about the Sunshine Law, Assistant County Attorney Rob Eschenfelder urged commissioners to consult their own legal department.

"We would prefer you get your interpretations from our office," he said.

Added Palmer: "It's very healthy you are all concerned about these things. We want you to be doing the right things."

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter@sarawrites.

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