For a county that professes so much devotion to sunshine and transparency, Martin County sure knows how to keep its citizens in the pitch black.
Now, finally, after months of ignoring the law, the Martin County Commission's scofflawing is out in the open. Commissioners got caught ducking into "dangerous if not illegal" closed-door meetings and in another matter they are suspected of attempting to destroy email correspondence on private accounts used to conduct public business.
On Friday, the Sacramento, Calif.-based public-interest law firm Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) presented all five Martin County commissioners, the county administrator and the county attorney with a stinging public records request. See the complete letter by opening the attachment at the end of this story.
I think this is a good thing, because who better to take on lawyers than lawyers?
Top to bottom, Martin County is run by a non-elected cabal of environmental litigators, a pair of county commissioners (one a lawyer) and groupies who show up at public meetings to stroke the commission majority on camera. But mostly, the power and directional decisions for the county come from the attorneys. One in particular, unelected Virginia Sherlock, literally directs the commission's goals before every meeting. Nobody complains. Nobody says a word.
Why this is such a good thing is because Pacific Legal Foundation is a firm of lawyers, too. PLF won't be intimidated. When Sherlock, for example, trots out her commission goals for 2013-14, which are much about transparency and public participation, now Martin County citizens might get a better idea of how seriously to take them.
First, after all this time -- after months -- Martin residents still don't know how much money, if any, they're getting back from a "frivolous lawsuit" they won twice. They won first in the lower court, then they won when the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled they were victims of a frivolous appeal, and in a near-landmark decision ordered litigator Richard Grosso and plaintiffs to pay sanctions and all the defendants' expenses.
The county waffled, four of five commissioners saying they wanted to override the judges' order and forgive the plaintiffs the thousands of dollars owed back to taxpayers (residents were never even told how much they were owed). Then the matter apparently died behind closed doors. No public explanation.
Wrote attorney Christina Martin who signed the letter: "The matter is now over as evidenced by the facts that the Division of Administrative Hearings has closed the case and the Florida Supreme Court dismissed the appeal by the petitioners. Any meetings that occur on whether to refrain from imposing the court-ordered sanctions should now be open for public participation by all Martin County landowners."
Martin continued, "Pacific Legal Foundation has a real concern that the county is setting a dangerous, if not illegal, precedent by holding meetings of public concern without involving all landowners in Martin County. Additionally, the county should involve county landowners before forfeiting its entitlement to public funds. It is the opinion of Pacific Legal Foundation that 'closed cases' should not be discussed behind 'closed doors' under Florida law."
No doubt PLF knows the four commissioners who met behind closed doors are some of the very people suing the County Commission in 2009. They were the plaintiffs.
They were members either of the Martin County Conservation Alliance or 1000 Friends of Florida. They are also the same commissioners who approved amendments to the county's Comprehensive Land Use Plan, challenged by a state agency, a state Cabinet office and three property owners.
One last thing: If this were a football game, Martin County would be flagged for intentional grounding. When Christina Martin's letter arrived at the county, it was forwarded to all county commissioners. But, would you believe, the notice appearing online was posted without her letter attached? Still hiding negative news -- old habits die hard in that part of the world. The county had to be told the absence was noticed to do the right thing and include the letter for the public to see.
The second part of the letter deals with nine specific public records requests that County Administrator Taryn Kryzda told me "are going to take at least a week and probably much longer to produce. This is very time-consuming work."
But in her letter, Martin says PLF was tipped off about "allegations of public records violations" in the lawsuit between Martin County and landowner Lake Point. The suit claims former County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla made false statements and tried to destroy the developer.
According to the letter, "The plaintiffs' Motion to Inspect Electronic Devices to Determine if Evidence has been Spoliated suggests that various commissioners have used private email accounts to conduct public business, and these public records have not been preserved, posted on the county's public records website, and in some instances they have been altered or improperly manipulated.
"If the statements contained in the motion are accurate, Pacific Legal Foundation is concerned about how such conduct implicates Martin County landowners, their ability to freely access the government on important property rights issues, and their ability to access government records without a fear that such records will be manipulated or destroyed."
One of the requests, incidentally, is for "all documents concerning the commission's consideration or actual forgiveness of the sanctions imposed by the court ..."
This is going to get interesting. Other Florida counties are watching to see if Martin County pushed the envelope a little too far this time.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423.