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Complaint claims Duffy violated Sunshine Law

Published By: Sun Herald

Staff Writer

Charlotte County Commissioner Tricia Duffy may have violated Florida's Sunshine Law by negotiating a litigation settlement pact with a phosphate mining company behind closed doors, according to a formal complaint an environmental advocate filed Tuesday with the State Attorney's Office.

Gail Giles, a Port Charlotte resident who has rallied fellow environmentalists to oppose phosphate mining in the past, cites a 1994 Florida Attorney General's opinion which states the Sunshine Law applies even to advisory boards that make no binding decisions -- if those boards accept or reject proposals during negotiations.

The Sunshine Law requires public boards and committees to hold public meetings.

Duffy, who was appointed commissioner in October 2006, was appointed in September 2007 to represent her commission in negotiating the so-called Phosphate Compact with Mosaic Fertilizer.

Negotiation sessions have been held either at a private office building in Sarasota or via conference call without public access.

The commission is set to consider the pact Tuesday.

Duffy denied every allegation in Giles' complaint.

"Anyone can make an allegation, but that doesn't make it true, and in this case it isn't," she said.

She declined further comment, citing a concern that Giles' allegations may have already turned into a legal matter.

Giles, in a phone interview, said she decided to file the complaint because Duffy has displayed a pattern of tactics that contravenes the public's ability to provide input.

"It matters in the fact that I as a person count on the commissioners to represent me," Giles said. "But if they don't know what my opinion is, then they can't represent me."

In her complaint, Giles wrote that Duffy has shown a "propensity ... to disregard the Sunshine Law throughout her one-year appointment."

In one of several examples, Giles claimed that Duffy, during a presentation to the Peace River Republican Women's Form in November 2006, had said she and Commission Chairman Dick Loftus had discovered prior to his election that they agreed on most issues. The Sunshine Law would prevent them from discussing county issues privately, Duffy said, adding, "We have found a way around that," according to Giles' complaint.

At least two others who attended the meeting, Sue Reske and Ruth Bromberg, both said they recall Duffy making the comments.

"She basically said she and Commissioner Loftus felt very much alike on most issues and the Sunshine Law would prevent them from talking, but they had found ways to get around that," Bromberg recalled. "I certainly remember it clearly.

"The way I heard it, it was like everybody in the room was sitting there with their mouths open because she was saying that she and Loftus were going to get around the Sunshine Law."

But Diane D'Andrea, who was president of the forum at the time, said Duffy never said she and Loftus had found a way to get around the Sunshine Law. Duffy did say she and Loftus had been friends for a long time, D'Andrea recalled.

"She was mentioning that there was a way she could maintain a friendship," D'Andrea said.

In other examples, Giles cited the fact that Duffy requested the commission hold "roundtable" workshops so the commission could receive information from select individuals without holding public input sessions.

Also, Sept. 11, Duffy and Loftus both came to the meeting with written notes as to why they thought County Administrator Bruce Loucks should be fired, Giles pointed out.

Loftus said County Attorney Janette Knowlton had reviewed how the Sunshine Law would apply to the phosphate-settlement negotiations and had approved Duffy's appointment.

Also, Loftus said he and Duffy both came to the September meeting with notes critical of Loucks' performance by coincidence. Donald Mason, head of the Punta Gorda branch of the State Attorney's Office, 20th Judicial Circuit, said he will review the complaint to determine whether it cites evidence to support the allegation. Mason declined further comment, citing the office's policy not to comment on pending investigations.

You can e-mail Greg Martin at gmartin@sun-herald.com.

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