Sunshine laws come into play in the Village of Islamorada

Potential Sunshine Law violations have come to the Islamorada Village Council. The Sunshine Law provides a right of access to governmental proceedings at both the state and local levels.

Dennis Ward, the State’s Attorney for Monroe County, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about the state’s cases.

Ward said, “We had a Sunshine Law violation. We had two of them. One of them we closed out before the hurricane. We basically determined it was unfounded. The reason it was unfounded and we couldn’t make a determination was that the elected Village Council Members chose not to speak to any of my investigators on advice from the Village attorney. We determined that the allegation, the meat behind the Sunshine Law violation was the resignation/termination of the Village attorney who was alleged to have had some type of romantic involvement with his secretary. As it got around the Village and it took probably six, seven, eight months for it really to get going, there came a time that it was prudent for the Village to part ways with the Village attorney and secretary and there was a package arranged for both of them. I think the Village attorney’s was somewhere around $180,000 and the secretary got a $20,000 goodbye kiss from the Village.”

It was put on the council agenda labeled as item X and the council voted on these packages.

Ward said, “Naturally it upset a lot of people and they made a complaint with us and we looked at it and found some interesting things, but nothing that we could bring criminal charges on. So we closed that up basically with a lack of cooperation from the elected Village Council members. The acting Village Manager at the time said she had no responsibility to involve herself in any of this, although she did. She claimed that we falsely accused her. That’s not true.”

When the Village Council elected to not speak about the case, it falls under the Fifth Amendment.

Ward said, “If they choose not to talk about the Village’s business, which they’re responsible for making sure people certainly see transparent actions by their elected official, then it’s up to the electorate to deal with those people. We did what we could. We sent out our investigation. It was published in the Miami Herald. The Keynoter citizen chose not to publish it because no one was charged. I think that’s probably a lack of responsible reporting, but they have their reasons and I guess they want to have access to the Village Council and not be kept in the dark on future issues.”

A second issue with the Sunshine Law showed up with garbage rates.

Ward said, “I guess there’s a new garbage collector in town and they wanted to increase the rates. There was already a contract in effect. There was discussion and somewhere that discussion ended in a vote and they had to make a determination on what they voted on. Somebody wanted to take a break and during the break, one of the councilmen approached another councilmen in what appeared to be a heated manner. It’s on video, but they turn off the sound and video usually during the break. Based on that conversation we received another complaint from some citizens that were standing there and the results of that complaint was that we issued a summons for violating the Sunshine Law to Councilman Webb.”

That’s scheduled for court in November.

Ward said, “He has an attorney. A high-powered attorney from Miami that is being funded by the Village because this occurred as part of his official duties, I guess. So the Village taxpayers are funding his defense. People are innocent until proven guilty.”

The comprehensive report of the incident is available for public review. Call the State’s Attorney’s office at 305-852-7170 for a copy.

Another recent case involved spearfishing.

Ward said, “These guys were spearfishing and saw a tarpon and they speared it, threw it in a bag and an FWC officer decided to go down and check by the bridges and ran into these people and asked what was in the bag. It was a tarpon. They said they didn’t know the rules and regulations.”

You need a permit to take a tarpon. If you don’t have one, you violate the law.

Ward said, “We’re pretty tough on these fish violations, lobster violations. I think this guy got 20 days. We seek jail time once you get to a certain number of lobster. I think it’s fair to do that because not everybody can afford these high-powered lawyers from Miami coming down here to defend these people coming down here to rape our natural resources, which are very, very important to me. I want my grandchildren to experience the same type of things that I’ve experienced down here in the Florida Keys as far as going fishing or diving. It’s very, very important to me and very, very important to our economy.”