Comm. Gene Valentino Charged With Public Records Law Violation

August 12, 2009

valen.jpgEscambia County Commissioner Gene Valentino has been charged with a public records law violation for failing turn over emails in a timely manner.

The office of State Attorney Bill Eddins reviewed complaints that Valentino did not comply with Florida’s public records laws.

“This review has determined that sufficient facts exist to believe that Commissioner Valentino did fail to timely or completely respond to a public records request and as a result has been charged with one count of violation of the Public Records Law,” according to a press release from Eddins.

The charge is a non-criminal infraction that is punishable by a fine up to $500. Valentino will appear in court on the charge on August 27.

Eddins’ office also looked into a meeting between Valentino and Pensacola City Councilman Sam Hall. Eddins’ office released the following statement on that meeting:

This office has completed its review regarding allegations that County Commissioner Gene
Valentino and City Council Member Sam Hall may have violated the Florida Sunshine Law by
participating in a private meeting. This review included numerous interviews including Gene
Valentino, Sam Hall, Charles Wood, and Mort O’Sullivan. We also examined applicable
documents and records as well as the law as it relates to Sunshine issues. Based upon our
review, we have determined that there is insufficient evidence to establish that any violation
occurred. We do find however, that this meeting gave the appearance of impropriety and violated
the spirit of the Sunshine Law.

These allegations arose as a result of a meeting between Gene Valentino and Sam Hall on April
28, 2009 which took place in a private office located in the City Hall building. Both Valentino
and Hall are voting members of the Pensacola-Escambia Promotion and Development
Commission (PEDC). The PEDC is a quasi-governmental entity that was established by a
special act of the State Legislature in 1967. The stated purpose of the PEDC is to promote
economic development in Escambia County. Staff support for PEDC is provided by the
Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and funding is provided by the City of Pensacola
and Escambia County. Meetings of the PEDC are subject to the Sunshine Law.

The April 28, 2009, meeting took place at the request of Gene Valentino. Valentino was in the
process of preparing an economic development plan for Escambia County. The terms of this
plan had not been made public at that time. The apparent purpose of the meeting was to request
Hall’s support for this plan. Both Hall and Valentino have stated that the terms of the plan were
never discussed at that meeting and neither believed it was a matter that was likely to come
before the PEDC.

Additionally, Valentino and Hall discussed the need of scheduling a PEDC meeting as soon as
possible as well as several agenda items that each wanted discussed at the next meeting.
Valentino wanted to discuss financial issues regarding PEDC and Hall wanted to discuss surplus
city property located in the downtown area. There is no indication that these items were
discussed in detail but only the need to place them on the agenda for the next meeting.
During this meeting, Hall made a telephone call to Charles Wood. Wood is a Senior Vice President
for Economic Development for the Chamber of Commerce and as a part of his duties
provides staff support to the PEDC. Hall was using a speaker phone when he called and never
indicated that Valentino was present. During that conversation, Hall expressed the need for a
PEDC meeting as soon as possible and also discussed whether Valentino’s economic plan was
compatible with a plan being proposed by the Chamber.

At the May 28,2009, PEDC meeting, Valentino stated that the meeting was scheduled at the
request of Sam Hall and himself and that they had met to discuss setting the agenda. He further
stated that his attorney had advised that he is allowed to meet with other PEDC board members discuss procedural matters.
On June 16, 2009, the issues regarding economic development were discussed at the committee
of the whole workshop of the Board of County Commissioners. At that meeting, it was
recommended that the Board of County Commissioners refer the two economic development
plans to the next PEDC meeting to “hammer out” a hybrid plan for eventual approval by
Escambia County and the City of Pensacola.

The next meeting of the PEDC was held on July 1, 2009. At the beginning of that meeting, Sam
Hall made a statement that he had not intentionally violated the Sunshine Law and that he had
discussions with both Mort O’Sullivan and Valentino. Hall later clarified his remarks to state
that he did not believe he violated the Sunshine Law. O’Sullivan has stated that he did have
minimal discussions with Hall regarding the Chamber’s economic development plan but did not
believe it was a violation of the Sunshine. He based this on his belief that the PEDC had no
decision making authority over economic development, such authority belonging to the City and
County. He further stated that he did not anticipate that the issue of economic development
would come before the PEDC until the committee of the whole meeting on June 16, 2009.
As this meeting continued, there was considerable discussion of the competing economic
development plans. The PEDC eventually voted to recommend the Chamber plan to the City and
County. In approving this motion, the PEDC clarified its position that the PEDC had no
authority over which direction economic development would go but was simply indicating a
preference for the Chamber’s plan.

Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law applies to any gathering of two or more members of
the same board to discuss some matter which will foreseeably come before that board for action.
At the time of the meeting between Valentino and Hall, neither believed that the economic
development plan being developed by Valentino was likely to come before the PEDC for any sort
of action. They did not believe that the PEDC had the authority to make a decision on which
economic development plan would be adopted by the City or County. In addition, there was no
discussion of the elements of Valentino’s plan but simply a request for support by Valentino to
Hall. Under the specific facts of this case, this discussion does not rise to the level ofa Sunshine
violation.

This same conclusion would be reached regarding any discussions between Hall and Mort
O’Sullivan. Neither believed at the time of the discussion that this was a matter that was likely
to come before the PEDC or that the PEDC had any authority over this issue.
As previously stated, this issue did come before the PEDC at their July 1, 2009 meeting. At this
meeting, there was a full and complete discussion in the Sunshine of the issues relating to
economic development prior to any action being taken. A Sunshine violation, if one had
occurred, may be cured by a full, open and independent public hearing regarding the disputed
issue. This would apply in this case.

Finally, Valentino and Hall discussed the need to schedule a PEDC meeting as well as setting
several items on the agenda. While these issues should be handled through staff and not directly
between commission members, this discussion does not rise to the level of a Sunshine violation.
While our review has determined that there was not a Sunshine Law violation, we are concerned
about the appearance of impropriety that the meeting between Gene Valentino and Sam Hall
raises. All members of commissions or boards that are subject to the Sunshine should be acutely
aware of the public perception of their actions. This is especially true for elected officials. The
spirit as well as the letter of the law should be followed at all times.

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