McIntosh Mirror: Reflecting news in the Tosh

Want to impact your community? Many of McIntosh's citizen boards have open seats and a council at a loss as to how to fill them.

Light-up McIntosh December 15

Light-up McIntosh will begin at the Civic Center at 6:30 p.m. The event will host Santa Clause and an area choir from six local churches will sing.

06.25.05 -- ARTICLE -- Filtering out the Sunshine through the moss

This article was written for an in depth reporting class March 22, 2006. I am posting it now because it brings some history of the current local news events in McIntosh to light and it discusses one of the main problems small towns have with no media coverage to force officials to follow the state's Sunshine laws.

Filtering Sunshine through moss
How the Sunshine law plays out in a small town


By CHER PHILLIPS

McINTOSH -- Ever wondered how a governing body in America would operate without the watchdog media in the wings?
Just wander outside the city limits and beyond the circulation area of the local paper and take a closer look at small town politics.
McIntosh is a tiny burg caught exactly halfway between Gainesville and Ocala, edging up to the Alachua county line on its lake side but firmly planted as the northern-most city in Marion County. Even though most of the town’s residents work in one city or the other, the town is located too far away to warrant trips from either New York Times owned newspapers based in the town’s neighboring cities, leaving the town’s business uncovered in local news.
McIntosh’s town leaders are volunteer politicians, most of whom have no background dealing in most kinds of government including Florida’s Sunshine laws - and it shows.
Since the last election, in the absence of a watchdog press, council members have fallen into a pattern of toeing the line of the Sunshine law.
In January, council e-mail conversations discussing town business issues got to the point where Mayor Marsha Strange wouldn’t even reply to them.
At first, she said she would attend a meeting and be in the dark about subjects that came before the council because the council had been discussing it in e-mail without her.
“See, they were e-mailing among themselves and when they were discussing something, I would say, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’ Then Danaya would say, I need to get your e-mail, you should be included on this,” Strange said.
After Danaya Wright, town council president, included Strange in the group e-mails, the mayor said she still was concerned about replying to them.
“At some point when they were e-mailing they asked, ‘Marsha, are you out there?’” And I would not interact because you are not supposed to be doing that,” she said.
These communications also left out council woman Eunice Smith. Smith has been in politics in McIntosh for 27 years as either the town clerk or a member of the town council. She does not use e-mail and was therefore excluded, with the rest of the town, from the council’s e-mail discussion.
The council members attended a training session offered by the Florida League of Cities in late January. Returning with ideas for raising revenues, they also stopped their e-mail correspondence. Strange said the League of Cities went into great detail about what they could or could not e-mail to each other.
But the trend continued in other ways.
For a council workshop on Feb. 25, Wright asked local business owner Casey Girardin not to attend a publicly noticed council workshop.
Girardin said Wright promised to smooth over a conflict she was having with two council members. When asked why she asked Girardin not to attend, Wright said she thought that Girardin would not be interested in the subject matter.
But during the five-hour workshop, the council hashed out more than differences between Girardin’s business and other council members.
In addition to discussing increased fees for Girardin’s business, Sportsman’s Cove, the council made short and long term plans for the town including tax and water rate increases, plans to hire a town manager, citizen board issues, as well as plans for development. The council ventured into areas of personality, naming names of residents who some members felt were causing problems in the town and discussed firing the town’s lawyer. At one point during the meeting, Council Member Jim Strange asked the rest of the council to raise their right hands and agree that nothing said during the meeting would leave the room.
Florida’s Sunshine Law states public officials can not meet in private. While the workshop was publicly noticed, a member of the town’s Historic Preservation Board said there weren’t very many people there for a reason.
“They were hoping there wouldn’t be,” Beverly Dodder said. “It was a council workshop to try to iron out some differences. But sometimes you can’t let your hair down if there’s an audience. I was going to come but I thought that maybe they just needed to hash things out and maybe get on the same page.”
Normally, the council meetings have a regular attendance of 15 – 30 residents. Recent discussions involving a community redevelopment agency, land development, code enforcement issues and budget issues are firing up the grapevines through the small town and increasing attendance.
But only two people attended the workshop meeting other than council members: the spouse of a council member and a reporter.
Another issue with the meeting was that the council members did not seem to understand the nature of a public workshop.
Town Clerk Julie Musselman set up a tape recorder at the beginning of the meeting but was told by Wright not to record it. The clerk bases her minutes on the recordings of the meetings.
“I couldn’t believe Danaya told her to turn the recorder off,” Smith said, who witnessed the exchange.
Charlsie Stott, former council member, requested a copy of the tape at town hall the following day and found that neither a recording of the meeting, nor minutes, existed.
“That really shocked me when she told me that she didn’t tape that meeting,” Stott said.
Later in the week, Wright turned in some notes which Musselman handed out as minutes. Wright later said in the March 9 council meeting that these notes were never meant to serve at minutes.
At that meeting, after residents specifically asked for minutes to be reported to the public regarding the meeting, Wright filed a more complete version outlining subjects talked about at the meeting.
But the town attorney Scott Walker said the minutes of a workshop do not have to contain any more than a summary of subject presented.
Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation said the meeting was problematic on two issues. The first was that the ban of a member of the public in a meeting.
She said that if a member of the public is acting out in the meeting, the council can ask that person to leave. But she said there is no way for the council to know beforehand if that person would act out again.
Harper said the other potential problem was the nature of the minutes. Though the town is not required to tape record these meetings, they are required to provide minutes that indicate the nature of the conversations that led to the decisions taking place.
Both sets of minutes turned in to the town office were notes taken by Wright summarizing the decisions made at the meeting and do not detail topics like firing the town’s attorney, details about a controversial redevelopment project and concerns about specific individuals voiced by council members.
But Harper said the spirit of the Sunshine Law is meant to allow the public to participate in the decision making process. She said minutes should be complete enough to allow people to follow the discussions that led to the decisions.
For instance, the second version of the workshop minutes compiled by Wright indicate the town council members discussed raising water rates but still do not detail how much they plan to raise the rates or other planned fines, fees, charges and tax increases.
On March 10, the town council called an emergency meeting with three hours notice for the purpose of hiring Jim Sewell as the town’s interim code inspector.
Again, no minutes were taken of this meeting and no recording was made.
Musselman said she would have to write them up from memory when a public request was made for a record of this meeting.
While the town charter allows for emergency meetings, notices for these meetings have a line of fine print on them. Any challenges to decisions made by the council in these meetings should be verbatim. With no minutes, no recording and three hours notice, none of the town’s residents could challenge the decision to hire Sewell.
A closer look at other McIntosh public meeting shows a workshop meeting on Feb. 23, presented by students working for University of Florida’s Conservation Clinic in the Center for Governmental Responsibility was also not recorded and minutes were not taken. Materials detailing a plan for a community redevelopment agency – CRA – which would affect 42 land owners and 54 parcels of land in McIntosh were presented to the residents, two town council members, as well as the mayor. Maps, timelines and financial plans presented regarding plans for the town are still not available to the public through the town office.
A public record request that by law should take 24 hours was directly made to Srujani Pagidpati, a UF law student working on the CRA, took a week to deliver. Tom Ankerson, the director of the UF Center for Governmental Responsibility, said that any future requests needed to be sent to the town office and would be available in the office.
On March 2, the local ministers of McIntosh sent the town council members a certified letter regarding the redevelopment project stating: “We request that all state and local legal documents pertaining to the creation and operation of the CRA be compiled, copied and made available in the town office to any and all of our citizens who wish to read during that year.”
Wright, a law professor at the University of Florida, as well the chair-elect to the faculty senate, meets with these students every week to discuss their progress in planning McIntosh’s future.
None of these materials regarding the CRA have been made public to the McIntosh residents in the more than six months UF students and Wright have been researching and organizing the redevelopment project.
Harper said she could make several suggestions for the town of McIntosh because the town’s leaders are showing concerning trends. She said that if any of the residents are concerned they can call the Florida Attorney General’s office and request mediation. Harper said the drawback for the residents is that this would be voluntary on the part of the public officials.
Her other suggestion was the First Amendment Foundation could present a Sunshine workshop to the council and the town’s residents for the cost of their travel from Tallahassee– about $70. Council members paid $700 per member for the League of Cities presentation.
Other than that, Harper said that the best remedy to this kind of trend is for reporters to keep writing about it.

posted by Cher @ 12:13 PM,

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Editor

Editor and Publisher:

I'm Cher From McIntosh, FL I'm a graduate student at the University of Florida working on a master's degree in Mass Communication. While I was finishing my undergrad degree in journalism last year, I reported on McIntosh, Fla. for an in-depth reporting class. I figured that the reporting and the public record files should go somewhere people can access them. Reporters don't report to keep the information they find to themselves. Some of that reporting is included here in a forum that allows response. McIntosh suffers because with no news coverage, the local government and the rumor mill have too much potential to run rampant over residents. I moved to McIntosh in the fall of 1999. My profile

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The primary purpose of this blog is to accurately reflect what happens in town public meetings and dispel rumors. I record the meetings and make them available for download. One of the goals of this blog is to offer residents a place to voice opinions. The comments, views and opinions expressed there are not necessarily those of the editor.

 
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