Did Hall and Valentino violate Sunshine Laws?

May 12, 2009

Did Councilman Sam Hall and Commissioner Gene Valentino violate Florida Sunshine Laws?

Hall and Valentino both serve on the Pensacola-Escambia Economic Development Commission (PEDC). Valentino is the chairman, Hall vice-chair.

According to Commissioner Valentino’s appointment calendar, the two met on Tuesday, April 28 at Pensacola City Hall. The appointment calendar has the meeting lasting from 2:30-4:00 p.m. City staff has confirmed that Councilman Hall reserved an office on the seventh floor of City Hall and the meeting was held with Commissioner Valentino.

IN reporter Sean Boone asked Hall last Thursday about the meeting.

“He and I met one time and it wasn’t on PEDC business, absolutely not. He and I have talked about disparaging economic development outside of PEDC.”

“I heard third hand somewhere he wanted to do away from the PEDC.”

“I don’t even know what (Gene Valentino’s economic plan) is. I’ve asked him two or three times to at least get a preview and he won’t do that. I’ve even asked him to share if PEDC is part of that plan and he wouldn’t even do that.”

We did learn on the same afternoon at approximately 3:30 p.m., Sam Hall called Charles Wood, senior vice president of economic development for the Pensacola Chamber. Hall conducted the conversation over a speaker phone, but Hall did not tell Wood who was in the room with him.

At some point during the conversation, Hall mentioned Commissioner Valentino and Wood made a few comments about Valentino.

According to sources inside City Hall, when Valentino left the meeting with Sam Hall, the commissioner was visibly upset.

Could it be that Valentino was in the room when Hall made the phone call? If he was, then it appears the pair broke the Florida Sunshine Law by meeting privately to discuss matters concerning a board on which the two elected officials serve.

Since Valentino won’t tell anyone his plan, we don’t know if PEDC is part of it.

Hall has denied that he was on a conference call with Charles Wood. Commissioner Valentino has not returned any phone calls. In fairness to Hall, Sean asked him if he and Valentino had a conference call with Wood. Since Valentino didn’t speak (assuming he was in the room), Hall may have not considered that a conference call.

A week after his meeting with Valentino, Councilman Hall posted on his blog: “Regarding economic development, I believe the Pensacola-Escambia Economic Development Commission (PEDC) is essential for any economic development plan. PEDC does not have to be the driver of economic development, but it needs to be plugged-in to help public-private endeavors, owing that it can issue bonds for development, it can transfer land easily for ED sites, and it has elected officials from the City of Pensacola, Escambia County, and the City of Century on its board.”

Why should this matter?
In September 2002, former Commissioner Terry Smith was convicted on two counts of violating the state Sunshine Law and was sentenced Sept. 18 to 250 hours of community service and $4,987 in fines. One of the counts concerned Smith and fellow Commissioner W.D. Childers calling Supervisor of Elections Bonnie Jones on a speaker phone to discuss voter redistricting sometime between January and April 2001. Childers and Smith were removed from office in May 2002, after the grand jury indictments.

At the Council Committee of Whole meeting on May 11, Sam Hall spoke to this issue in the council forum segment of the meeting.

Hall said, “I understand an individual has taken an interest in one of my recent meetings.”

He told the council that he had met recently with Commissioner Gene Valentino in City Hall, “rather than in some coffee shop.”

“While we did not discuss PEDC business, we did discuss economic development. I was curious as to his plan.” —which is a little different from he told IN earlier.

“I understand that even if we in fact did not violate sunshine law, there is still the appearance to be addressed.”

Hall went to say that he has met with Commissioner Valentino several times to discuss issues (Hall told IN that he had met only one time with Valentino). He also has met with Commissioner Robinson concerning 9th avenue issues “until we began serving on a Board together.” He met with Commissioner Young concerning downtown parking and shuttles for the Blue Angels show.

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