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SPECIAL REPORT: Non-Compliance with State Law Plagues Orange County Soil & Water Board

ORLANDO, Fla. (FNN NEWS) – Florida currently has 58 Soil & Water Conservation Districts which were created under Chapter 582, Florida Statutes. These Districts are governmental subdivision of the State of Florida and a special district under Chapter 189, Florida Statutes. Orange County is represented by the Orange Soil & Water Conservation District, which consists of five non-paid elected supervisors. This report focuses on the Orange Soil & Water Conservation District.

 

Transparency and accountability encourages officials to act in the public interest. Florida National News found that the Orange Soil & Water Conservation District (Orange SWCD)  Board of Supervisors was not acting in the public best interest as it relates to complying with state law for years.

 

Questionable Board Election

Photo courtesy of Eric Rollings (Facebook)

Orange Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor Michael Barber (Seat 1), a full-time attorney, was elected Board Chair at the District’s monthly board meeting Friday, March 8. Former board chair and district supervisor Eric Rollings was on hand. He congratulated Supervisor Barber and even posted the news on social media.

 

The election results, however, may not stick, given the circumstances around the meeting and what took place during the meeting. Florida National News has discovered that the Orange Soil & Water Conservation District is plagued with years of non-compliance with state law, including Chapters 120, 189 and 286, Florida Statutes.

 

Public Notice Issues

According to Chapter 120, Florida Statutes, SWCD meetings are required to be posted in the Florida Administrative Register (https://www.flrules.org/default.asp) seven days prior to the meeting in order to give the public proper notice.

 

Chapter 189, Florida Statutes requires SWCDs to prepare a regular meeting schedule quarterly, semiannually or annually that provides the time, date and location of the meeting, and provides a statement on how to appeal an official decision; and this schedule must be filed with the clerk of the board of county commissioners. SWCDs are also required to place a classified ad in the local newspaper about the upcoming meeting. The law also requires SWCD to post on its website meetings and workshop agendas seven days before the event and keep it at least one year.

 

While Supervisor Barber claimed he met the requirement of posting the meeting on the Florida Administrative Register, some of the other means which the board has used in the past to notify the public of its meetings have incorrect information.

 

On the Orange County Government’s website, the last meeting notice Florida National News found dated back to January 29, 2009 at 6:00 p.m., which consequently showed a different location: 2nd Floor Agenda Meeting Room, Orlando City Hall, 400 S. Orange Avenue, Orlando, Florida.

 

The Orange County Government website lists outdated information for Orange Soil & Water Conservation District board meetings. Image courtesy of Orange County Government.

The Orange County Government website lists outdated information for Orange Soil & Water Conservation District board meetings. Image courtesy of Orange County Government.

 

Also, the Orange County Administrative Building’s notice board, located in the lobby, has listed the Orange SWCD board meetings as taking place at 3pm since March 2018, when the meetings actually take place at 3:30pm. In February, then Board Chair and Supervisor Daisy Morales (Seat 2) chose to not start the meeting due to no quorum and the meeting not being properly noticed to the public. That day, one of the members of the public who intended to make public comment during that meeting had arrived at 3pm based on the meeting notice on Orange County’s notice board.

 

As of March 12, 2019 the Orange County Government notice board still has the Orange Soil & Water Conservation District board meetings listed as taking place at 3pm. Photo: Florida National News.

As of March 12, 2019, the Orange County Government notice board still has the Orange Soil & Water Conservation District board meetings listed as taking place at 3pm. Photo: Florida National News.

 

Florida National News also found an Orange SWCD meeting notice on the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) with incorrect information.

 

 

During  Friday’s meeting, Supervisor Barber gave Supervisor Morales a meeting schedule for Orange SWCD, but it too contained a typographical error: the address listed was for the Orange County Tax Collector’s Office at 301 S. Rosalind Avenue, Orlando, Florida.

 

This meeting schedule, given to Supervisor Daisy Morales by Supervisor Michael Barber, shows a typo in the meeting address, and the phone number listed is for USDA-NRCS Conservationist Chuck O'Rourke, not any of the supervisors.

This meeting schedule, given to Supervisor Daisy Morales by Supervisor Michael Barber, shows a typo in the meeting address, and the phone number listed is for USDA-NRCS Conservationist Chuck O’Rourke, not any of the supervisors.

The Orange County Tax Collector's Office located at 301 South Rosalind Avenue is across the street from the Orange County Administration Building, where the Orange SWCD meeting takes place in the County Commission chambers.

The Orange County Tax Collector’s Office located at 301 South Rosalind Avenue is across the street from the Orange County Administration Building, where the Orange SWCD meeting takes place in the County Commission chambers.

 

Additionally, the phone number listed on the above document is for USDA-NRCS Conservationist Chuck O’Rourke, not for any of the Supervisors, much like the erroneous listing on the FDACS website.

 

Three members of the public attended Friday’s meeting, one of which was attorney Joel Montilla, Regional Vice President of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida. He reported that he actually asked the board about how it was noticing its meetings. While Supervisor Barber cited the required public notice on the FDACS website, he “answered in the negative” when Montilla asked him about noticing the public by any other means, including on social media, which was routinely done by Eric Rollings when he was the chair. He alone had access to the district’s Facebook page. Not even Supervisor Nicole McLaren, who serves as the board’s PR liaison, had access to it.

 

Election Legality and Florida Sunshine Law Issues

In the January 2019 meeting, held on January 11, Supervisor Barber was absent from the meeting due to his job as an attorney—he was in court at the time of the meeting. He was then Board Secretary, and several members of the board wished to nominate him for the role of Board Chair, a role he had previously declined in 2017 when Supervisor Morales had nominated him. Supervisor Tiffany Dziekan (Seat 5) was Board Treasurer and Supervisor Morales had become Board Chair in December 2018 after Rollings’ resignation to run for Orange County District 3 Commissioner took effect.

 

When the board held its election during the January meeting, several of the supervisors contacted him via cell phone with calls and texts, which is a violation of the Florida Sunshine Law. Eric Rollings was also present during the meeting and called him during the meeting as well. In his absence, Supervisor Dziekan was elected Board Secretary in addition to already being Board Treasurer, Supervisor Dawn Curtis was elected Vice Chair and Supervisor McLaren, who is also a full-time attorney, was elected PR liaison for a second year. The board moved to have another election in February.

 

Since February’s meeting did not happen, the board chose to have another election during Friday’s meeting for Board Chair, and elected Supervisor Barber for the role.

 

Effective October 1, 2016, Section 189, Florida Statutes requires that a meeting agenda be released seven days in advance so the public can also be made aware of what will be discussed or voted on in a meeting. That was not the case in January or March. In fact, there was no agenda for the March meeting. The board—on the spot—moved to meet on February’s agenda instead. That decision was unlawful, since the public was given no public notice of the agenda.

 

Additionally, during the March meeting, Supervisor Barber elected to fill the role of Secretary and record the minutes, since Supervisor Dziekan was fifteen minutes late. Supervisor Dziekan opted to be only Treasurer, which would nullify her additional January election as Board Secretary. Therefore, two elections took place during the meeting without proper public notice.

 

Also during the meeting, Supervisor McLaren called in instead of being present. Given her full-time job as a staffer for U.S. Congressman Darren Soto on education issues, she works in Washington D.C. and has missed several meetings—five in 2018, according to the minutes, including January and March, which happened again this year. According to Florida Sunshine Law, supervisors must attend meetings in person and cannot electronically participate with the exception of an extraordinary circumstance such as illness or disability.

 

In a recent development, Supervisor Morales told Florida National News that she received a call from the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office Monday stating that Eric Rollings, who is neither hired staff nor an appointed Associate Supervisor with the District, contacted the office in an effort to update the Orange SWCD information on their website to reflect Supervisor Barber’s election to Board Chair. Supervisor Morales had just contacted the office herself last week to update the Supervisor of Elections office’s information since it had a defunct email address listed for the District.

 

Morales was told on Monday that Rollings was calling on behalf of the Board. By contrast, in the November 2018 board meeting, Supervisor McLaren, who was present, was ready to reprimand then Associate Supervisor Derek Ryan for saying he attended an event representing the board.

 

Website Compliance Issues

Florida Department of Equal Opportunity banner logo

Chapter 189, Florida Statues, requires a Soil & Water Conservation District’s website to post its meetings, meeting agendas and meeting minutes. The district is required to register its website with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s Special District Accountability Program in order to be included in the Official List of Special Districts Online.

 

The Orange SWCD has three websites:
ocsoilandwater.org, started by Supervisor Dziekan in March 2018 – Active, but non-compliant with Chapter 189
orangeswcd.com, started by Supervisor Morales in March 2019 – Active, but non-compliant with Chapter 189

 

The Florida DEO requires SWCDs to list their annual budget on their website. None of the Orange SWCD websites have that information listed.

 

Policy and Bylaws Issues

According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s Special District Accountability Program, SWCDs are required to provide a statement on how to appeal an official decision (an item that the board has voted on) and a non-discrimination policy.

As an example, Collier Soil & Water Conservation District’s website lists its non-discrimination policy thus:

“CSWCD prohibits discrimination against its customers, employees, and applicants for employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, sex, gender identity, religion, reprisal, and, where applicable, political beliefs, marital status, familial or parental status, sexual orientation, or all or part of an individual’s income is derived from any public assistance program, or protected genetic information in employment or in any program or activity conducted or funded by CSWCD. (Not all prohibited bases will apply to all programs and/or employment activities.)”

Additionally, SWCDs have bylaws, which are voted on by the board. Seminole SWCD has bylaws and has a link to the bylaws on its website. Supervisor Morales had requested the board to vote on bylaws during her first term (2015) as Supervisor, and Supervisor Tiffany Dziekan also presented bylaws January 2019, but the board did not vote on them. To this day, the Orange SWCD does not have active bylaws.

In closing, based on Orange SWCD board’s non-compliance in these areas, it appears that anything the board has recently voted on could potentially be null and void, including Friday’s elections.

______________________________________

Mellissa Thomas is Editor for Florida National News. | mellissa.thomas@floridanationalnews.com

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