Deferred Prosecution For Task Force Members; State Still Contends Century Violated Sunshine Law

September 22, 2016

The four individuals accused of violating Florida’s Sunshine Law won’t be prosecuted, but the State Attorney’s Office remains steadfast that a violation occurred and has the put the Town of Century on notice.

The former members of a Citizens Advisory Task Force — Alfonzie Cottrell, Helen Mincy, Sylvia Godwin, and Robert Mitchell — previously pleaded not guilty to a noncriminal violation of the Florida Government in the Sunshine Law. They were charged by the State Attorney’s Office with having a public meeting that was not properly advertised. On July 26, a meeting was advertised in a legal notice to begin at 4:00 p.m. The meeting was actually held at 2:00 p.m., preventing the public from attending.

If convicted, each defendant faced a maximum fine of $500.

Each defendant has signed a deferred prosecution agreement with the State Attorney’s Office under which charges will be dropped if the defendant has no violation of the law  and resigns their position on the Citizens Advisory Task Force or completes an online training course regarding the Sunshine Law. If the individuals meet the conditions, the charge will be dropped in six months. The State Attorney’s Office said any fees or costs in connection with the case will also be waived.

In letters from defense attorney Kim Skievaski to Century Mayor Freddie McCall and the Century Town Council, each of the four task force members resigned their positions effective September 12. Skievaski was hired by by the town at $300 per hour to represent the four defendants.

At last Monday night’s meeting of the Century Town Council, McCall, reading from an email from town attorney Matt Dannheisser, said “the state will completely dismiss the charges….nor is there any suggestion much less an admission of guilt”.  In a paragraph of the email McCall did not read to his council,  Dannheisser said he would hold off until the agreement was formally entered into court records before the “issuance of any statement demonstrating that there was no violation in the first instance”.  He said he would meet with the prosecutor to understand his reasoning, and “unless he can convince me that he had a good basis for his action, I will issue a letter supporting the town and explaining that there was no violation and that was likely the reason the persecutor essentially dropped the charges.”

After being provided a copy of Dannheisser’s email, Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille wrote a letter to Dannheisser calling his conclusions “incorrect”.

“There was a clear violation of the Sunshine Law by holding a public meeting at a time other than what was advertised in a public notice. The decision to dispose of this case by Deferred Prosecution was not based on the strength of the case but rather on mitigation circumstance. These circumstances, including the age of the individuals, their agreement to resign from the Citizen Advisory Task Force, and the considerable responsibility of the Town of Century in allowing the violation to occur, convinced this office that Deferred Prosecution was appropriate,” Marcille wrote.

“The Office of the State Attorney has always taken a strong position regarding the enforcement of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law and Florida’s Public Records Law. We will continue to take this position in the future,” the assistant state attorney concluded.

A public notice published on NorthEscambia.com and in the weekly Tri-City Ledger newspaper in Flomaton, AL, stated that the Town of Century’s Community Development Block Grant Citizen’s Advisory Task Force (CATF) would meet at Century Town Hall at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, July 26.

“The public notice for the CATF meeting provided by our firm had a typographical error that listed the time for the meeting as 4:00 p.m. instead of the correct time of 2:00 p.m.,” town consultant Robin Phillips of Jones-Phillips and Associates said, adding that letter sent to the CATF member specified a 2:00 meeting time.

“There was never any intent on the Town’s or on our part to mislead or misinform anyone.  It was an unintentional typographical error, ” Phillips said in a letter to NorthEscambia.com.

Marcille said his office will continue to stand behind a letter from State Attorney Bill Eddins to McCall. The letter reads:

“This office has completed its review of allegations that members of the Citizens Advisory Task Force violated the Florida Government in the Sunshine Law by holding a public meeting at a time other than what was advertised in the public  notice. Based upon our review, we have determined that a Sunshine Law violation has occurred. As a result of that decision, we have filed noncriminal infraction charges against the members of that task force. We have also determined that the Town of Century bears considerable responsibility in this matter.

“In this case, public notices were advertised on NorthEscambia.com and in the Tri-City Ledger that the Citizens Advisory Task Force would hold a public meeting on July 26, 2016, at 4:00 p.m. The time listed on the notice was incorrect and should have stated 2:00 p.m. The meeting  was held at 2:00 p.m. and concluded before 4:00 p.m. As a result, this meeting was held outside the Sunshine and without proper notice to the public. It is unclear if the problem with the erroneous time was ever discussed at the meeting. To avoid this issue occurring in the future, we recommend that at the beginning of all public meetings, the advertised notice be clearly reviewed on the record to determine that the meeting has been properly advertised.

“It is also apparent that the members of the Citizens Advisory Task Force were not sufficiently educated as to their responsibilities under the Florida Government in the Sunshine Law. We recommend that the Town of Century immediately establish training programs for all individuals serving on Sunshine boards or committees. We recommend that an outside agency such as the First Amendment Foundation be used for the training.

“Finally, concerns have been raised that the Town of Century has not adequately advertised the  dates and times of public meetings. We recommend that the Town follow the suggestions of the Attorney General’s Office regarding public notices. These recommendations indicated that all meetings, with the exception of emergency or special meetings, should be advertised at least seven days prior to the meeting. Special meetings should be given notice of no less than 24 hours but preferably at least 72 hours notice should be given to the public. Emergency meetings  should be afforded the most appropriate and effective notice under the circumstances. This notice should contain the date, time, and place of the meeting, as well as a copy of the agenda or statement of the general subject matter to be considered.”

Pictured top: CATF members Helen Mincy, Robert Mitchell and Sylvia Godwin during a CATF meeting on Thursday, July 28. Alfonzie Cottrell was not present at the July 28 meeting. Pictured inset and below: The Century Town Hall was locked and the parking lot empty just 4 p.m. Tuesday, July 26, the time of a publicly noticed town task force meeting. NorthEscambia.com photos, click to enlarge.

Comments

8 Responses to “Deferred Prosecution For Task Force Members; State Still Contends Century Violated Sunshine Law”

  1. Imho on September 24th, 2016 8:02 pm

    I believe the State Attorney was more than fair. For many first time offender a deferred prosecution saves time, money, and resources. If they do not comply then their case can/will be reopened as a criminal case. I wish them the best and hope Century takes the time to train residents who are willing to take time and energy to serve.

  2. jeeperman on September 22nd, 2016 10:55 am

    If Hillary can avoid prosecution because she “didn’t intend to commit a crime”, so too can these task force members..

  3. Lewis T. on September 22nd, 2016 9:19 am

    There are two sets of laws in the United States now. One the legislative bodies from Congress down to city councils and school boards make the laws. These laws are intended to charge and convict the average to poor person. Second these same legislative bodies realize they can be charged with breaking these laws but never convicted. They have money or invoke the taxpayer to foot the bill. For the average to poor person charged honest, truthfulness, and integrity matter nothing to the freedom of these defendants. However, with the other group, using the high priced lawyers and sometimes the power of the media these people invoke words like misleading, don’t remember, not clear, and tactics like, move on, doing the job of the people, stalling, lying, deleting, can’t find the evidence, etc. One day there will be another “Storming of the Bastil.”

  4. DLo on September 22nd, 2016 7:41 am

    Congratulations counselor, you managed to secure the defendants exactly what was offered by the state before they had a $300 per hour mouthpiece, that seems about par for Century town politics. No wonder they raised property tax, someone has to pay for incompetence, ineptness isn’t cheap. Yet you still contend that there was no violation, except there was. The meeting was advertised at 4pm, and took place at 2pm, that is a violation, regardless of why. This all could have been avoided by the board members taking responsibility, admitting they made a mistake, and taking a Sunshine Law course, end of story. I’d like to know how many billable hours were spent brokering this deal. The citizens of Century deserve better leadership than this, DISSOLVE THE CENTURY TOWN GOVERNMENT NOW!

  5. Carolyn Bramblett on September 22nd, 2016 7:37 am

    This cannot just go away. This is serious to the people of the State of Florida. We really need to remember we are supposed to be a nation of law.

  6. jeeperman on September 22nd, 2016 7:09 am

    The cost of hiring defense attorney Skievaski should be paid by
    the town consultant, Robin Phillips of Jones-Phillips and Associates.
    After all, their “unintentional typographical error” is what started all of this mess.
    Then that consultation company should be fired.
    And town attorney Matt Dannheisser should also be fired for thinking he is the judge and jury.

  7. M in Bratt on September 22nd, 2016 7:06 am

    Let’s see, The State Attorney offered this deal BEFORE Century hired lawyers (Dannheiser and Skievaski). How much money did Century throw away on lawyer bills to arrive at the same conclusion they would have had without lawyers?

  8. Frank on September 22nd, 2016 6:45 am

    Sounds like Mayor McCall & town attorney Matt Dannheisser almost stepped into some stink. Pride comes before a fall The SAO was more than kind…





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