Did City Risk Breaking Law to Keep Report from Press?

Consultant Says WP Historic Preservation Has “Serious & Fundamental” Problems. Report May Not Be Welcome at Commission

Did City Risk Breaking Law to Keep Report from Press?

As 2013 comes to a close, a quick review of Winter Park City Hall news stories reveals that there are several key issues that Winter Parkers seem destined to struggle with.

Historic preservation, Park Avenue restaurant zoning, tree canopy / green space preservation and high-density development are prime examples.

Historic preservation has been front and center during the festive month leading up to the City’s Christmas break, making more than one appearance in the headlines over the last thirty days.

Capen House Voyage & Consultant’s Report Puts Historic Preservation Front and Center.

In December, the triumphant voyage(s) of Capen House across Lake Osceola – saved from the wrecking ball by a dedicated group of citizens and non-profit organizations – is likely to be remembered as an enduring symbol of the community’s commitment to historic preservation. However, the very same citizens who saved Capen House also have been working for months to ensure that the City’s Historic Preservation ordinance is strengthened in favor of homes like Capen House that may be threatened in the future.

The focus of these citizens and various preservation-oriented organizations has been a process that is not unfamiliar to city residents who pay attention to City policy: the long, sometimes tedious business of modifying City ordinances.

Even though the process of modifying an ordinance carries with it a fair share of eye-glazing detail – in Winter Park, the process often includes a bit of drama as well. A case in point is the tense stand-off between Columnist Beth Kassab and City officials.

Sentinel Columnist Beth Kassab Requests Consultant Documents. City Stalls.

At issue were documents created by a consultant, Myles Bland, who had been hired by the City to study and suggest changes to the City’s Historic Preservation ordinance. On November 13, Ms. Kassab had requested an advance look at the report/notes/supporting documents that the consultant had submitted to the City prior to his appearance in front of the Historic Preservation Board (HPB).

Kassab Document Request      Consultant First Draft – 11/5/13

On the day of the hearing, Winter Park Voice also requested a digital copy of the presentation document the consultant had sent to the City.

As of 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, November 14 – the day of the hearing – the City had not fulfilled either request.

Historic Preservation Boss Orders Staff to Stop Talking to Kassab.

A subsequent public records request by the Voice yielded documents showing that the City had received a draft of presentation-related documents from Mr. Bland a week and a half before the November 14 HPB meeting.

We also uncovered an email sent by department director Dori Stone to her staff and Clarissa Howard – on the night before the meeting – shutting down all direct communication with Ms. Kassab:

 

“On behalf of all of the Planning Dept., we will not be communicating directly with Ms. Kassab on this or any other issue in the future. Clarissa, we will attempt to respond to her requests in a timely manner subject to public records rules. As for clarification, I don’t pay consultants to talk to the press on my dime. That’s why we have meetings. If Ms. Kassab has any issues with this, she is welcome to discuss it with [ City Attorney ] Larry Brown.”

Communication Shutdown Email

On Wednesday night, 16 minutes after Dori Stone’s email to her staff, consultant Bland emailed his completed Power Point presentation to Historic Preservation staffer, Lindsey Hayes. The next morning, November 14, at 11:11 a.m., Ms. Hayes forwarded Bland’s Power Point presentation to Dori Stone and Randy Knight, but not to Ms. Kassab.

Consultant Presentation/Report      Hayes Forwards Report to Stone

That evening, at the start of the HPB meeting, Ms. Hayes handed the Voice a hard-copy printout of the consultant’s presentation, stating that she was unable to find a way to send the presentation digitally as requested.

Did City Risk Breaking Law Just to Keep from Being Scooped by the Press?

City documents obtained by the Voice show that the City waited another day – until Nov. 15, the day after the HPB meeting – to post the consultant’s digital Power Point presentation on the City website. On that same day, the City sent the digital Power Point file to the Voice in response to our Nov. 14 request for the “consultant’s report.”

Consultant Presentation Draft – Sent 11/5      Consultant Presentation Final – Sent 11/13

Documents obtained by the Voice – and the sequence of events described above – appear to show that the City understood that press requests for the consultant’s “report” included the Power Point file that Mr. Bland used to illustrate his spoken presentation to the HPB. Email from Ms. Hayes to her supervisor, Dori Stone on Nov. 13, the day before the hearing, appears to confirm that the consultant’s report/presentation was withheld from the press to ensure that the report did not appear in the press before it was presented at the HPB meeting. Here is a key exchange between Ms. Hayes and department head Dori Stone on Nov. 13 referring to Beth Kassab’s request for the consultant’s report:

Hayes to Dori Stone:
“Re emails below – what part of ‘I don’t have a copy’ doesn’t she get and why should the media get an advance copy of a presentation the city paid for?”

Hayes to Clarissa Howard on the same day (also forwarded to Stone):
“…as a matter of process, the HPB should hear the recommendations before they read an edited version in the media.“

Hayes Email to Stone      Hayes Email to Howard

In an effort to clarify the City’s handling of requests for these documents, the Voice interviewed several City staffers, including City Manager Knight. Mr. Knight told the Voice that he was not involved in decisions made by Ms. Stone, Ms. Hayes or others concerning media requests for consultant information prior to the Nov. 15 HPB meeting.

In response to Voice questions about apparent “gaps” in written documentation of certain related matters, more than one City staffer confirmed that business inside the City is often transacted person-to-person/verbally with no written record of some discussions and related decision-making processes.

Legal Expert Believes Public Records Disclosure Law May Have Been Broken.

Soon after the HPB meeting in November, the Voice consulted with experts in Chapter 119 Public Records Disclosure law in an attempt to learn whether City actions may have run afoul of Florida statutes requiring disclosure of public records. According to Barbara Petersen, President of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, the apparent facts of the case seem to support what “appears to be a violation of Florida Public Records Disclosure law.”

Ms. Petersen also confirmed that once a consultant’s draft or related documents are submitted to the City – and/or shared for staff review – the documents become public record and must be released to the press and public “promptly and in good faith” when requested.

Ms. Petersen indicated that ignorance of the law is no defense for City officials and staffers and – if the City is shown to have willfully withheld documents – it could be subject to prosecution by the State Attorney and charged with a 1st Degree Misdemeanor as follows:

119.10 Violation of chapter; penalties.—

(1) Any public officer who:

(a) Violates any provision of this chapter commits a noncriminal infraction, punishable by fine not exceeding $500.

(b) Knowingly violates the provisions of s. 119.07(1) is subject to suspension and removal or impeachment and, in addition, commits a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.

(2) Any person who willfully and knowingly violates:

(a) Any of the provisions of this chapter commits a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.

(b) Section 119.105 commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.

History.—s. 10, ch. 67-125; s. 74, ch. 71-136; s. 5, ch. 85-301; s. 2, ch. 2001-271; s. 11, ch. 2004-335.

Kassab Column Suggests City Motive for Withholding Documents.

In her column published in the Sentinel on November 22, Ms. Kassab accused the City of improperly withholding the documents she had requested in the days leading up to a Historic Preservation Board hearing.

Ms. Kassab’s column, entitled “Winter Park withheld public report on historic preservation,” began with a simple declarative sentence: “Don’t Trust Winter Park City Hall.”

Ms. Kassab’s column included this passage:

“The city’s denial wasn’t a simple oversight. The emails included a message from Hayes that suggests a decision was made to keep the report out of sight until the meeting.

She noted my request in an email to Bland, and wrote to him, ‘….I have let our Communications Director, Clarissa Howard, know that an advance copy is not available. All respect to the paper, the HPB (Historic Preservation Board) should be the first to hear your comments.’

That’s not the way Florida’s public-records law works. It says nothing about giving appointed or elected officials first dibs on information. Or picking and choosing which records you would like to make public and which ones you’d rather not.

Howard said my request was misunderstood. She said Hayes considered the draft by the consultant to be ‘talking points’ and not pertinent to my request for the report. Oh, please.”

City Manager Knight Responds: “There Was No Cover-Up Here.”

Kassab’s assertions appeared to anger City Manager and other high-level City staffers. In the City’s November 25 Commission meeting, three days after the column was published, Mr. Knight refuted Ms. Kassab’s claims, indignantly stating that “At the time she asked for the report, it did not exist . . .We had no draft report . . . We had draft talking points.”

The Voice requested documents that could verify the City’s claim that consultant Bland had provided only “talking points” instead of a draft of his report and/or his Power Point slide presentation. In response, the city provided an email containing the words “speaking points” in the body of an email entitled “Draft 1.”

However, that email also included an attachment entitled “WPK Slides Rough Draft for LH Only.doc

Citizens Voice Dissatisfaction With City’s Historic Preservation Actions and Policies.

During the Commission meeting’s Public Comment segment, Joan Cason reminded the Commission that “Florida law states the public is entitled to review draft reports and not just final products . . . ” Cason criticized the City for refusing to give Kassab documents “to which she was legally entitled . . .” Cason laid the blame squarely on the City, saying “. . . this is clearly unacceptable behavior on the part of the City . . .”

In response to Ms. Cason and to questions from the dais, City Manager Randy Knight mounted a spirited defense of his staffers’ actions, strongly stating “There was no cover-up here . . . [ Kassab’s ] trying to make it look like we’re trying to cover something up . . . that simply wasn’t the case.”

Mr. Knight then added a caveat to his comments, admitting that Kassab had expanded her request in a subsequent email: “In one of her follow-up emails she added the line something like ‘or anything else.’ At that point, we should have given her the talking points – but nobody directed Lindsey Hayes to not provide anything.” (Click “Kassab Document Request” button above.)

Public Commenter Sally Flynn to Commission: “I am ashamed and I hope you are ashamed.”

Sally Flynn followed Ms. Cason, saying from the podium that the City’s Historic Preservation consultant has been kept from delivering his report directly to the Commission, asking, “Why did we pay to have a consultant – an excellent one?”

Ms. Flynn issued a call to Winter Parkers: “I want all the citizens to hear: Mr. Bland said our historic treasures are in peril and that we, Winter Park, have the worst preservation ordinance he has seen of any city in Florida. I am ashamed and I hope you are ashamed.”

Ms. Flynn’s comments laid bare the dissatisfaction that has simmered within the preservation community for a long time – and which has led to criticism of the Historic Preservation Board and the City’s existing Historic Preservation ordinance that – per the City’s own consultant – is considered to be weak and ineffective.

The ongoing dissatisfaction within the preservation community has motivated a citizens’ group to create their own report and recommendations for improving historic preservation in Winter Park. Their interaction with Winter Park’s Historic Preservation Board will be explored in Part Two of this story.

Commissioner Cooper Issues Challenge: Allow Consultant to Speak to Commission.

Ms. Cooper responded to comments from Ms. Cason and Ms. Flynn saying “I actually am embarrassed for the Commission and for the City . . . I believe we should give Mr. Bland an opportunity to present his report to the Commission.” ” Cooper said she anticipated that the consultant’s report “. . . would receive a public vetting at least equal to the vetting that was given to the Economic Development Board with Silvia Vargas. I didn’t know we had made that decision as a Commission not to hear it . . .”

Mayor Bradley and Commissioner Sprinkel jumped into conversation seeming to offer hope that the consultant’s report might be heard by the Commission. However, the Mayor quickly modified his response saying, “Whether we hear it or not, there’s dozens of consultants that this City uses in numerous ways – and I don’t believe every report comes to the Commission . . .” to which Cooper responded: “No, just the ones that are important like the Economic Development and historic preservation.”

Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel followed up Mayor Bradley’s comments, moving beyond whether the consultant would appear before the Commission:

“Let me tell why this is frustrating to me: I didn’t like that article in the paper [ Kassab’s column ] because I thought it was very unfair to the City . . . We have citizens that are accusing us of things that we haven’t – not only have not done . . . but this hasn’t gotten here [ to Commission ] yet . . . I don’t know about you, but I’m not doing any of that stuff . . . I really don’t like the fact that somebody’s trying to create an issue . . . Don’t start thinking that somebody has some ulterior motive – because I know I don’t have one and I know my friends up here don’t have them either. So, please give us an opportunity to let the process work.”

Commissioner Leary Defends Commission/City Actions. Frustrated by Citizen “Lectures.”

Commissioner Leary ended the Commission meeting with the last word on the City’s handling of the HPB consultant’s report. He appeared to reject Commissioner Cooper’s request for an appearance by the consultant, suggesting instead that the HPB is the appropriate venue for input from the consultant and citizen groups who are seeking to upgrade the City’s existing Historic Preservation ordinance.

“Occasionally we are accused of things up here that are just simply not true. We are taking our time with things. We have asked for studies. We inherited the current Historic Preservation ordinance. We are the first ones looking at it to address some of the holes in it . . . I think this Commission’s been pretty activist in trying to make sure that some of the things that we have been handed, we maintain and update for current needs of our community. So it is a bit frustrating to sit up here and be pointed out and lectured and told that people are embarrassed by how we’re handling things when we’re actually acting to address opportunity areas.”

Coming next: Historic Preservation Policy / Part Two

The Voice takes a closer look at the City’s handling of proposed changes to Winter Park’s historic preservation ordinance – and the interaction among the City Commission, the Historic Preservation Board and an advisory panel of citizen preservationists. For purposes of comparison, we also examine the City’s handling of the Fine Dining ordinance change process – which, unlike the historic preservation process, was primarily driven by a citizen task force.

 

  • author's avatar

    By: Tom Childers

    Tom was the previous editor of the Winter Park Voice and a citizen of Winter Park. He was a tireless advocate for Winter Park.

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