CRESTVIEW — A closed Crestview City Council meeting to discuss pending litigation on a downtown alleyway’s ownership has raised questions about the meeting’s unusual advertisement and council members’ reluctance to discuss its content.
Advertised for Jan. 3, 2012 in the back pages of Wednesday’s Northwest Florida Daily News, the Crestview City Council met in closed session Thursday evening to discuss legal action against resident Barbara Adams and Florida A&M University.
Two copies of the meeting agenda reportedly appeared on bulletin boards in City Hall.
Loretta Scardina, City Clerk Betsy Roy’s administrative assistant, said she was instructed not to send a meeting notification usually emailed to local media and other interested residents in advance of city council meetings.
Update: Mayor David Cadle said he was not the one who instructed the city against informing the media about the meeting, and he doesn't know who did.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida government-in-the-sunshine watchdog organization, said the meeting’s unusual notification did not appear to constitute an open meetings law violation.
“I doubt the fact that they screwed up the date, on its own, would be a violation of the law. We’re all doing that this week,” Petersen said.
“But the placement of the ad — was that ‘reasonable notification’? ‘Reasonable’ means it has to be sufficient to inform those who are interested in attending. Only a court could make that determination.”
City attorney Jerry Miller has been negotiating with Adams regarding ownership of the alleyway on the east side of Florida A&M University’s downtown building. When the city gave the former Alatex building and land it occupies to FAMU for its pharmacy school, it was assumed the alley was included in the parcel.
Adams contends her family legally retained the alleyway to service nearby Main Street businesses. Service vehicles regularly used the alleyway to make deliveries to the businesses.
Because City Hall’s doors were routinely locked when the building closed Thursday evening, only residents who arrived in advance could attend the meeting’s public portion. Cal Zethmayr, a WAAZ-FM reporter, arrived after the meeting began and couldn’t open the doors.
Doors are locked as security, Councilwoman Robyn Helt said. When Zethmayr sent a text message to Mayor David Cadle to inform him the public couldn’t attend the meeting because of locked doors, Roy unlocked the doors after the closed session concluded and the meeting’s public portion resumed.
“An executive session is not open to the public,” Helt said.
The locked doors and unusual notification of the meeting were not a “plot” to exclude the public or media from the meeting, she said.
“Before the executive session, there were members of the public waiting outside the door to the council chamber,” Helt said. “The doors were open prior to going in there, but once we convened in the executive session, nobody is permitted to be in there. As soon as the executive session ended, the city clerk unlocked the doors to City Hall and we reconvened in a public meeting.”
The meeting’s only public portions were the call to order, invocation, Pledge of Allegiance and roll call, Councilman Tom Gordon said.
“Then, everybody gets out,” Gordon said. “Even Betsy Roy had to leave. We had our discussion and had a candid conversation.”
The meeting was held under Florida statutes permitting a voting body to conduct a confidential discussion with its legal representative, Petersen explained.
As advertised, just Miller, Cadle, council members and a court reporter — whose transcript of the meeting will become public upon the litigation’s conclusion — attended, Gordon said.
Helt and Gordon said Miller advised them not to comment on the meeting’s non-public content.
“I can just tell you that the city attorney has advised us not to comment on it at this point,” Helt said.
“My official answer has to be ‘no comment,’” Gordon said. “But ‘no comment’ sucks.”
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.