On Wednesday at the Satellite Beach City Council meeting, City Manager Barker and Councilwoman Gott made some interesting comments concerning the Clerk of the Court, Scott Ellis, who is looking into the use of CRA funds spent by the City from 2003 – 2009.
Ms. Barker said “Ellis was intent on filing suit against the City.”
This seemingly simple opinion is actually a multi-faceted statement that needs to be examined.
First, what Ellis has said from the beginning is that as the City believes it did nothing wrong, he will seek a “judicial declaration” to determine whether the City’s use of CRA money was within the law.
However, it is important to note that a judicial declaration is not the same thing as what we typically think a law suit is.
A court decision in a civil case that tells the parties what their rights and responsibilities are, without awarding damages or ordering them to do anything.
So while we typically think a “suit” involves damages or monetary awards, that is not what Ellis will seek. He will seek a judicial determination as to whether the use of CRA money as Satellite Beach did is legal.
If the Clerk of the Court’s Office wins a declaration saying the spending was not within the law, he can then use that judgement to seek money back from Satellite Beach and other cities.
In other words, while seeking a judicial declaration is based on a set of facts involving the City of Satellite Beach, it is not the same thing as suing Satellite Beach.
The second facet of Barker’s statement goes back to something said by Ellis during the Brevard County Commissioner’s meeting on Tuesday.
As we listened in the audience, Ellis said he would “go to court to seek public records.” It was said in a general sense and we weren’t sure what Ellis was talking about.
It turns out that Satellite Beach has been delaying or stonewalling Ellis’ office request for public records under the state’s public record statutes. There is some depth to that as well.
The statutes allow for anyone to examine or get copies of public records. There are a few caveats such as one cannot seek records with proprietary information but for the most part, all records including financial records are open for examination by anyone. The City can charge a “reasonable fee” for the records but they have to supply them.
(The Office of the Clerk of the Court has been paying for all of the public records it has requested.)
So while Ellis said he was going to sue the City for the release of public records, it was not that he was “intent on suing the City,” but rather was seeking to have the City comply with the law in regards to the City turning over public records.
That legal action has now been rendered moot as the City has complied with the request for the public documents.
(Councilwoman Gott said Ellis was a “silly guy” and was “wasting time” of the City staff. We find the accusation of complying with the law being a “waste of time” to be misguided and inappropriate.)
But there is another player in this as well. Ellis’ office sought records concerning Satellite Beach from the Economic Development Commission (EDC) and was being stonewalled there as well.
The EDC is the same agency that on August 7, 2013, the City Council voted to join. The cost of joining was $2500.00 and gives Satellite Beach a seat on the Board of Directors of the EDC.
Is it a coincidence that at the same time the EDC was not complying with public records requests for Satellite Beach that Satellite Beach was paying to join the EDC?
We don’t know. But there is an appearance of impropriety there that is somewhat distasteful at the very least.
Ms. Barker continued and said Ellis’ “strategy is to hurt the City.”
We have one question in response to that assertion: “is it ‘hurting the city’ to hold it accountable for its actions?”
If that is the attitude, then let’s save the City a bunch of money by shutting down the police department and the jail because we don’t want to hurt people for holding them accountable for actions contrary to the law.
In many ways, we understand what the City is trying to do. They are worried that the City will be found to have spent CRA funds contary to the law. The repercussions of that finding would cost the City over a million dollars.
However, the City isn’t looking to do the right or lawful thing, it is looking to protect the money. We would prefer the City makes its case before a court and let the chips fall where they may. Let’s be open and honest about this and finish it.
Instead, Councilwoman Gott who said in a recent Council meeting she was unsure the expenditures were legal, tried to draw a line in the sand saying last night for Scott Ellis to “bring it on.”
There are times to fight and times to makes sure ones actions are legal and lawful.
The years of questionable CRA expenditures is one of the latter times.