The Sunshine Question

A Pensacola City Council member has raised the question of Sunshine-law violations. The official is claiming that the state’s open-government laws were violated via electronic communications, or e-mails.

“The Sunshine Law violation claim was made by a Councilmember and the alleged violator is the City Administrator; therefore, the Mayor thought it more appropriate to have your office investigate the matter,” City Attorney Jim Messer wrote to State Attorney Bill Eddins in a May 3 letter.

Councilwoman Maren DeWeese has charged that City Administrator Bill Reynolds violated the state’s Sunshine Law when he replied to an e-mail the councilwoman had sent him. DeWeese had contacted Reynolds regarding a matter before the city’s Parks and Recreation subcommittee.

“The response was addressed to Ms. DeWeese, and was copied to those whom she had originally copied, with the deletion of some junior staff and the addition of Mayor Hayward,” Reynolds wrote in an affidavit dated May 2. “I included in the response some comments by the Chair of  the Committee, Mr. Jake Renfroe …”

Messer explained today that DeWeese’s accusation was two-fold: the councilwoman has charged that Renfroe violated the Sunshine Law by communicating via e-mail with members of the Parks and Recreation board, and that Reynolds violated the law by forwarding the email message again to another board member.

The city attorney said that he could not discuss the accusations in-depth due to the ongoing State Attorney investigation.

“This may not be one of those cases where I can go drama-queen on you,” Messer said.

The attorney explained that he did not feel that Renfroe had violated the Sunshine Law, due to the fact that his e-mail did not invite discussion among board members. Messer said the accusation against Reynolds—that he served as a conduit of information—would be better handled at the state level.

“Now, I don’t know if Reynolds was a conduit or not,” Messer said. “That’s for the State Attorney.”

DeWeese laid out her argument in a May 2 email.

“Mr. Messer will need to weigh in on this matter of Sunshine law and clarify the issue of a conduit role you may have played in forwarding this information from one board member to another,” the councilwoman wrote. “I imagine this is an inadvertent communication on your part.”

In e-mails to DeWeese, Reynolds maintained that he was unaware his correspondence was sent to questionable individuals: “… to make it very easy for you, I suggest that you forward your concerns to the state directly.”

Messer said that he didn’t expect the issue to come up during today’s Committee of the Whole meeting. The city attorney also said he did not know how long it would take to get an opinion from the state.

“I honestly have never done this before,” Messer said. “I’m guessing less than 30 days.”