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Two Dunedin Commissioners in hot water over potential Sunshine Law violation

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Two Dunedin City Commissioners may be in very hot water over the recent events leading up to City Manager Rob DiSpirito’s abrupt resignation. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is launching an official investigation against Commissioner Heather Gracy and Vice Mayor Bruce Livingston for potential Sunshing Law violations.

Gracy initiated an unexpected motion to fire DiSpirito at a meeting in early January. She said his leadership skills had become lacking and he was instead merely keeping with the city’s status quo.

Her near midnight motion failed 3-2. DiSpirito’s contract requires a super majority to fire him.

Two weeks later, DiSpirito came to the Commission meeting still shocked, but with two choices for the board – either give him six-months to work out whatever issues the board had or fire him immediately with a hefty severance package. They opted for the latter with Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski the only member to vote against immediately firing him.

During that meeting members of the public overwhelmingly supported DiSpirito.

“I think there’s an undercurrent in this town right now that says those of you on the commission are above the Sunshine Law, and I’m here to tell you you’re not. We will hold you accountable,” said resident David Thomas, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The Sheriff’s office initially declined to investigate whether there had been Sunshine Law violations associated with the decision to get rid of the City Manager, but now is armed with additional information making an investigation prudent. The Sheriff’s office won’t say who the complainant is.

According to Florida’s Sunshine Law regulating open government, those found in violation of knowingly breaking the law would be guilty of a second degree misdemeanor. If convicted they could be removed from office and face a fine up to $500.

The law also holds that “no resolution, rule, regulation or formal action is binding unless it is promulgated at an open meeting.

It’s unclear whether a Sunshine Law violation among two Commissioners would trigger DiSprito’s reinstatement because the meeting itself was in the Sunshine.

Florida’s Sunshine Laws are vast. Among the provisions, members of an elected board cannot discuss relevant issues unless it is a discussion open to the public. So, two board members could not discuss a city issue over the phone, for example.

There are instances where a Sunshine Law violation could occur, but be quickly remedied. For example, a recent Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority vote had to be retaken after it was discovered that one board member asked another in a private conversation if she’d be interested in chairing the board. The violation was disclosed and another vote taken. Because of that it’s unlikely any further action will be taken.

Gracy and Livingston may find themselves under different circumstances if enough evidence is found through a series of interviews including potential witnesses to support a Sunshine Law violation. That potential violation led to a costly vote. DiSpirito’s exit package is costing the city more than $150,000. He gets six months of severance totaling $76,977, nearly $55,000 in unused sick leave, $4,738 in unused vacation time and more than $17,000 in retirement contributions. The package also includes six months of health and dental coverage and an agreement to work up to 40 hours per week for 13 weeks as a city consultant at a cost of $195 per hour for a maximum of $101,400.

It’s unclear when the investigation will conclude, but the Sheriff’s office is interested in winding it up quickly.

Neither commissioner being investigated would comment on the issue.

“I really don’t know the details of the complaint, so I really can’t comment,” Livingston said told the Tampa Bay Times.

“I am not going to give a comment until the investigation is closed,” Gracy also told the paper.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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