State Politics

Confusion over open meetings creates unrest on constitution panel

Chairman Carlos Beruff, center, is flanked by Commissioner Fred Karlinsky and Attorney General Pam Bondi as members of the Constitutional Revision Commission listen to residents during a town hall meeting with at Florida International University in Miami, April 6, 2017.
Chairman Carlos Beruff, center, is flanked by Commissioner Fred Karlinsky and Attorney General Pam Bondi as members of the Constitutional Revision Commission listen to residents during a town hall meeting with at Florida International University in Miami, April 6, 2017.

Can members of the powerful panel that has the authority to put constitutional amendments directly on the November 2018 ballot discuss votes in secret and lobby each other?

That is the question Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari has been trying to get answered for six months. Now, his failure to get an answer, he said, could spell trouble for the commission.

As a member of the Constitution Revision Commission, Solari left the June 6 meeting of the commission baffled and confused.

The meeting was bitter and contentious as CRC chair Carlos Beruff created an inconsistent set of rules in an attempt to get the panel to approve rules Beruff wanted. Hours after the meeting, Solari sent a letter to CRC staff director Jeff Woodburn seeking clarification.

Does the open meeting rule adopted by the commission prohibit meetings between two or more CRC commissioners, preventing members from lobbying one another, he asked. Or does it use the looser standard, allowing up to two commissioners to meet in secret but require meetings of more than two of them to be open?

The commission meets every 20 years and has the power to put proposals directly on the November 2018 ballot. It also develops its own rules for how to reach that goal and voted Tuesday on advancing only a handful of the more than 2,000 proposals submitted by the public.

Read more: Panel says no to most of public’s ideas for revising Florida Constitution

Solari said he was under the impression that the commission had adopted “the more open and transparent ‘two or more’” rule as recommended by Commissioner Roberto Martinez. But Solari didn't get a reply from Woodburn.

He waited five days and sent another email on June 11. Still no reply. He tried again on June 18. Silence.

Woodburn then agreed to talk by phone, avoiding putting put his answer in writing or creating a record trail. But Solari said Woodburn failed to clarify the rule again.

What's more, Woodburn refused to forward Solari's email outlining the issue to other commissioners, and ignored Solari's requests to get a legal opinion from the commission's lawyer.

By Aug. 11, Solari appealed to the commission’s Rules Committee chair Tim Cerio, who had experience on Florida’s sunshine law as the former general counsel to Gov. Rick Scott.

When Cerio came to the governor’s office in 2015 from the Tallahassee office of GrayRobinson PA, he replaced his fomer GrayRobinson colleague Pete Antonacci. Under Antonacci’s watch, the governor had drawn seven lawsuits that accused him and his staff members of illegally using private email accounts for state business and another lawsuit suing him and the Cabinet claiming they violated Florida’s open meetings law by orchestrating the firing of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey in violation of the sunshine law.

Cerio was instrumental in settling the lawsuits, leading the governor's office to pay more than $800,000 in settlements and legal fees —all taxpayer money.

Solari urged Cerio to clarify the CRC’s open meeting rule. “Given that the CRC will be meeting regularly in September it would be a great help to get clarity on this issue as soon as possible,” he wrote in an email.

Cerio responded with a phone call but failed to answer Solari’s question.

Solari wrote Cerio again on Oct. 5 and suggested some commissioners are “believing that we are now operating under the more restrictive rule and others believing we are operating under the less restrictive version.” He urged Cerio to bring the matter up before the Rules and Administration Committee to settle it once and for all.

On Tuesday, Cerio allowed Solari to address the committee. Solari told them the best resolution would be to conclude the commission had adopted the most restrictive rule — the one that applies to county commissions and prohibits commissioners from discussing business except in an open meeting —because that is what the public expects.

“That is the only meaning that we could give to the rule, especially if we are at all interested in keeping the public’s trust,”' he told them.

He suggested that the CRC press release may have misled the public when it claimed the commission had adopted rules that “facilitate an open and transparent process for the public.”

“In Indian River County, if we said that we were operating in an ‘open and transparent’ manner, most citizens would take this to mean that we were operating in the full sunshine not in the partial shade,”' he said.

Solari told his colleagues that he is open to adopting the looser rule that would allow commissioners to lobby each other and learn from each other in private conversations. “I don't care how the issue goes, I just think we all need to be on the same page,’’ he said.

Cerio concluded said that the commission will ask its legal counsel to publish the advice.

“I think we're following exactly what was done 20 years ago but if that's unclear, we owe it to the public as well as our fellow commissioners,” he said.

CRC spokesperson Meredith Beatrice would not comment on why Woodburn and Cerio have refused to answer Solari’s question or put any response in writing.

“Some form of follow-up will be provided,” he said. “This is an open and transparent process. All commissioners hold themselves to a high standard.”

Solari, a Republican from Vero Beach who was appointed to the commission by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the whole experience has him “baffled.”

"It’s something I just can’t grasp. I find the culture here to be incredibly closed and opaque,'' he told the Herald/Times. “If you hire lawyers to give you advice, why not use them?”

Read more: Rules conflict snags opening of Constitution Review Commission

He said he worries that the optics surrounding the commission rules could interfere in the success of the constitutional amendments it asks voters to approve.

“One of the things we need to do, as we make proposals and transfer them onto the ballot, is to build the public trust,” Solari said. “The best way to build the public trust is to operate in a open and transparent manner. If the public was watching our public meetings, the takeaway would not be something that builds that trust.”