IS RANCH TOWN HALL TRANSPARENT?

 

IS RANCH TOWN HALL TRANSPARENT?

 

Date: May 26, 2010
by: Pam Eubanks | News Editor

 
 

LAKEWOOD RANCH — Lakewood Ranch resident John Brown can’t make it to every Community Development District meeting, but he does make a point to attend every time he can.

The problem, he said, is finding out what he’s missing. As it stands today, Lakewood Ranch community development districts do not post an agenda online or make readily available to the public any background documents residents can view prior to their monthly CDD meetings.

“It’s very difficult to find out what will be discussed at the CDD meetings,” said Brown, chair of the Orchid Island neighborhood committee. “The CDDs should publish their agendas well in advance of the meetings. There is no valid reason for not posting the agendas online, and better still, the supervisors should insist that agendas are e-mailed a week or more in advance to all neighborhood chairs and voting members, as is the current practice with (the Country Club/Edgewater Village Association) agenda. I believe in transparency.”

To be clear, Lakewood Ranch’s CDDs are not violating any laws. The Florida Government-in-Sunshine Law provides only that governmental bodies publish notice of their meetings and keep them open to the public. The law also does not require public input for every type of governing decision.

But from Brown’s perspective — and others — Lakewood Ranch’s CDDs could improve their transparency — and possibly resident participation — by giving more notice to the public on what’s going to be discussed at meetings.
 
MEETINGS AND AGENDAS
Lakewood Ranch CDDs advertise a schedule of meetings once annually and provide notice of additional meetings and workshops as required by law.

The meetings even are posted outside Town Hall and on the resident-funded website, Digital Village. But the site does not offer any information about upcoming meetings besides the time, date and location.

Even supervisors often don’t get their agenda packets until days before their meeting or the day of their agenda review meeting. Supervisors discuss agenda items for their monthly meetings at an agenda review meeting held a day or two before. At the main meeting, agendas are provided at a back table for residents to pick up.

Brown noted agendas often are so vague he can’t follow what’s going on.

“The agendas should be more detailed,” he said. “This detail is needed as many of the volunteer representatives at the neighborhood level need time to canvass their members, and to research data appropriate to the subjects about which important decisions are being made. For example. There is very little advance detail provided about budgeting.”

Summerfield resident Joani Ellis agreed, noting she stopped going to meetings about a year ago because of her work schedule but would like to attend more. If she knew agenda items ahead of time, she could rearrange her schedule to attend the meetings, if necessary, she said.

“They state that there’s so much apathy, but it’s a lack of information,” she said. “I feel there’s not enough information given. We have Digital Village that we pay for, and no agenda is ever on it. (The agendas) are very vague. If they don’t break down the agenda on the pertinent topics, then how are people going to even know to ask questions?”

When asked why CDDs do not post agendas online or if it was possible, Community Manager Bob Fernandez pointed to a State Attorney’s Office opinion that states the Sunshine Law “does not mandate that an agency provide notice of each item to be discussed.”

Fernandez said including too many details on the agendas also may have a chilling effect on participation by residents because it may lead interested citizens to believe only items on the agenda will be discussed, when, in fact, other items can be added.

In the past, Fernandez told The East County Observer it would be expensive to provide additional supplemental packets for residents at meetings. However, he said residents who wish to review the document prior to a CDD meeting call Town Hall and request to view one.

By contrast, any Manatee County resident who wishes to follow how tax dollars are being spent or what changes are being considered by their county government can simply go to the county’s website to find an agenda and its supplemental documentation, including background and staff reports.

At meetings, a large binder is kept at a reception desk so that constituents can peruse its contents for their item of concern.

County officials have taken a proactive approach to keeping the public informed by improving its website, offering video streaming online and other improvements.

“We’re always trying to find new and additional ways to communicate with the public to let them know what their government is doing,” Deputy County Attorney Robert Eschenfelder said. “The county commission has instructed our office and the administrator’s office to be as open and (communicative) as possible.

“You should let (the public) know what you are going to do,” he said. “You know what you are going to talk about in advance, why would you not specify it in the agenda so folks could know about it? A detailed agenda at least gives citizens a chance to inquire more.”

The State Attorney General’s office said agencies should provide agendas, but there is no requirement on how much detail it must provide. It only asks that if governing bodies add controversial topics to the agenda at the last minute, they postpone a vote so the public can be informed.
 
PUBLIC RECORDS
The public records law, passed in 1909, provides that any record made or received by any public agency in the course of its business is available for inspection by the public, unless specifically exempted. Those records include e-mails to and from government representatives, personnel files, contracts and others.

The public can, at any time and without stating a reason, request to see any document that falls under this category.

As for meetings, the Sunshine Law requires that minutes of the meeting be taken, but verbatim notes do not have to be transcribed.

However, Fernandez tape-records all public meetings, and the CDDs have contracted with Severn Trent to have those meetings transcribed in detail for the record.

Attorney Andrew Cohen, who represents several Lakewood Ranch CDDs, said how those documents are procured for residents, at their request, depends on what the request entails.

“Lakewood Ranch is a mixture of where documents reside,” Cohen said. “Some are with Bob (Fernandez). Some are with Severn Trent. Some are with other entities, like the engineer.”

A General and Procedural Rules document for the CDDs states that records may be viewed at the offices of the district manager or at Town Hall. The policy sets the cost of copies at 25 cents per page, depending on the size, and allows a charge of $1 per page for certified copies. A special service charge can be added for inquiries that require extensive clerical or supervisory assistance.

At April’s IDA meeting, Fernandez brought forward a proposal for a formal public records request policy, but the item was tabled to a later meeting so the attorney could review it in light of some potential legislation being considered this summer.

Under Fernandez’ proposal, Town Hall would respond to a public records request in a reasonable time frame by contacting the requestor by e-mail or phone to schedule a day they can come to Town Hall to view the requested records. The appropriate Town Hall records custodian would make the arrangements and the requestor would be provided with an area to review the records under the guidance of a Town Hall employee. Any copies of records requested would be provided at a charge of 25 cents — 10 cents more than the current charge for copies.

Fernandez said Town Hall typically gets less than four public records requests per year.

LOOKING FORWARD
Fernandez said Lakewood Ranch’s CDDs have taken great strides regarding transparency.

“We have a more structured agenda now than we’ve ever had,” Fernandez said. “We have more in the way of backup information, as well. The supervisors have an opportunity to review the material prior to being asked to vote on something. In the past and in many CDDs, they (see an item and have to vote on it immediately).

“Typically, our issues get discussed at workshops or committee meetings,” he said. “We have a number of different forums where issues are talked about before they get to a point where a vote is taken. My experience is that the meetings are held to conduct the business of the CDD.”

Fernandez said Town Hall currently is not considering any change to the way it handles public records or meetings.

However, under the direction of the Inter-District Authority, Town Hall recently completed publication of its first quarterly newsletter, which is intended to improve communication with residents and educate them about CDD and HOA processes, among other topics.

Contact Pam Eubanks at peubanks@yourobserver.com.


OTHER COMMUNITIES
Lakewood Ranch CDDs are not alone in how they handle agendas.

Bill Rizzetta, whose property management company Rizzetta and Co., oversees CDDs for communities such as Waterlefe, Tara and GreyHawk Landing, said his company only provides advanced copies of agendas to residents if they are requested or if they are “hot-topic” items such as the budget. 

Otherwise, only board members get copies as a way to reduce costs incurred by the CDD, Rizzetta said.

“We don’t provide multiple copies of all the details and the background information; the reason isn’t because it’s secret,” Rizzetta said. “We try to be cautious and conservative for their dollar (time and cost to make copies). We have many districts that only ask for one copy of all of the bills for the chairman to look at, for example. We try to give the board what they are looking for.”

Other communities have taken a different approach. University Place utilizes an e-mail blast sent out by the homeowner’s association to notify residents of upcoming meetings and what will be discussed at them.

University Place CDD Chairman Ric Romanoff said his CDD does not have any sort of workshop prior to the meetings, so agendas are sent to supervisors two weeks in advance for review and comment. The board also runs its meetings informally, allowing attendees to comment throughout the meeting, he said.
Jim Ward, district manager for Heritage Harbour’s CDD, noted the entity does not have a website, so he tries to provide information to residents in as much detail as possible.

“I think the board and the public need to have the opportunity to completely review the material sometime before the meeting,” Ward said. “It’s more public disclosure.”


WHAT IS SUNSHINE LAW?
Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law provides citizens with the right to access meetings of state and local government officials.

The law requires that if any two or more members of the same governing board are gathered to discuss an issue that may come before that board for consideration or action, that meeting must be advertised and open to the public. Additionally, minutes of that meeting must be taken.

The law also applies to agencies such as school boards and planning commissions, among others, and to some degree even to homeowners’ associations.

There are a few exceptions to Florida’s Sunshine open access requirements, such as when a governing body is discussing litigation.

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