Add the St. Armands Circle Business Improvement District (BID) to a growing list of Sarasota city commissioners or city-affiliated groups targeted for Sunshine Law violations at Sarasota City Hall.
At the BID’s monthly meeting Tuesday, Nov. 12, at City Hall, BID organizer and Chairman Marty Rappaport announced that he and his directors are now being “targeted” as part of a public records request.
The matter has frustrated Rappaport to the point of considering resigning from the BID.
Rappaport noted that he’s worked for the BID since its inception in 2003 without pay and he’s considering stepping down concerning this matter, depending on how the process plays out.
“I’ve spent years volunteering and dedicating my time to the city and now find myself in the position of having someone trying to extort money while looking through my personal computer,” Rappaport said. “If you volunteer for this city, you’re at risk. If need be, I’ll resign because my time is too valuable and the exposure is too great.”
Citizens for Sunshine attorney Andrea Mogensen, through a letter from paralegal Michael Barfield, is seeking any email on private or personal email accounts from BID directors containing the words “restaurant,” “retail,” “Business Improvement District” or “Bob Gibbs.” Barfield also wants any email BID directors sent to St. Armands Circle Association Executive Director Diana Corrigan. Corrigan, though, she is not subject to the Sunshine Law through her affiliation with the BID.
The records request, which will involve rifling through Rappaport’s personal computer and most likely the computers of other BID directors, was prompted when BID and the Downtown Improvement District (DID) met to revisit the possibility of limiting the space restaurants occupy on the Circle and in downtown Sarasota.
At that meeting, Rappaport mentioned the BID had hired urban retail planner Robert Gibbs to study St. Armands Circle in 2005, noting that Gibbs praised the Circle as a shopping destination but warned retail tenants were being overshadowed by restaurants.
After that study, the BID suggested restricting restaurants from occupying the first floor of buildings; that effort was unsuccessful. Rappaport estimates that 55% of retail space on the Circle is used for food purposes, up 10% since 2005.
Although city attorneys warned there were a host of legal issues involved with restricting land use, Rappaport said it was a cause worth pursuing.
Members of both boards agreed, voting to put out a request for proposal that would bring in a consultant like Gibbs to investigate whether the number of restaurants within the BID and DID was problematic.
Rappaport noted Tuesday that his mentioning of Gibbs Oct. 8 did not mean he was pushing for the BID and the DID to hire Gibbs again. Rappaport also told city Purchasing Manager Mary Tucker weeks ago that to avoid any conflict, he would not be a part of a selection committee that hired a consultant to perform the work.
Rappaport and others expressed concern and frustration with the public records request Tuesday.
“I’m not concerned about being out of the Sunshine in any way,” Rappaport said.
What’s frustrating to Rappaport and other city volunteers, they said, is they are being forced to turn over personal computers because their personal emails have been used in the past to conduct business. Even if city employees send a notice of a meeting to a personal email, their personal computers could be scanned. BID directors also expressed concern with what they perceive as a frustrating city email policy.
“It’s easier to use our personal emails than try to log into the city system,” said Rappaport, who has since started using only the city email system for Circle business. Rappaport noted the only way for directors like him to be completely safe from public records requests in the future would be for the city to pay for city computers.
Corrigan also expressed frustration.
“Now BID directors are being harassed for not just work email, but personal emails,” Corrigan said. “It’s out of control.”
At a special Sarasota City Commission meeting Nov. 7, the City Commission approved a second settlement offer in response to an ongoing lawsuit that will acknowledge the city violated the state’s Government in the Sunshine Law for an undisclosed amount.
“Unless something is done and the city takes a stand, the city is putting themselves open for lawsuit after lawsuit,” Rappaport said. “These minor claims can cost thousands of dollars, and they’re driving volunteers like me from wanting to participate in the process any longer.”
Contact Kurt Schultheis at [email protected]