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FL: Politically motivated policy to keep reporters out of commissioner offices

Yes, it is Sunshine Week, but you wouldn’t know that in St. Johns County Florida after this morning’s meeting of the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners.

Two members of the Board whose terms are up, Jay Morris and Ron Sanchez, leveled charges against sitting Commissioner Bill McClure; alleging, among other things, that a candidate, who they say was “recruited” by McClure to defeat Morris’ bid for re-election, and a reporter for Historic City News, were left alone in Commissioner McClure’s private office after the commissioner was called away.

“I was not recruited by Commissioner McClure to run against Chairman Morris and I have no idea where he got that idea,” said Republican candidate Dan Abel who had just filed his papers to run for Morris’ expiring seat in District 4.

Abel told Historic City News this afternoon that he spoke to Morris for a moment when he saw him later that evening at the Republican Executive Committee meeting, but the subject of being recruitment to run for office was not mentioned. Morris challenged McClure in the televised meeting, saying that he had spoken to Abel on Friday and confirmed that it was McClure who had recruited him to run. McClure, who had been in communication with Abel since his visit, which was on Thursday, not Friday, said that not only had he not recruited Abel for the August Primary Election, but that Abel denied to him that he made such an allegation to Morris.

The two women on the Board, Cyndi Stevenson and Rachel Bennett, neither of whom are up for election this year, said that they saw it as problem for anyone to be in the “secured area” where the commissioner’s offices are located unless they were escorted by the commissioner.

Stevenson, who has been on the Board the longest, said she was so uncomfortable having the reporter and candidate in McClure’s office, that for the first time in 10-years she had to lock the door to her offices. The men were inside McClure’s office with the door closed. Stevenson said that she had experienced some heated times on the Board and scolded McClure for not trying to “get along” more with the other commissioners.

Bennett, who during the visit Thursday, gave a quote to Historic City News for an article about the emergency meeting that had been held that morning affecting beachfront homeowners losing their property to erosion from recent storms. Yet, she opined that for McClure to allow anyone to be alone in his office without him present was “unconscionable”.

McClure asked the County Attorney if it were a violation of Board policy for a commissioner to have a volunteer, or intern, or member of the public in his office when he was not in the office with them, as was alleged by Ron Sanchez.

It was learned from Patrick McCormack’s response that it does not violate Board policy, and, in this case, did not violate County administration policy. It seems that the county administration policy requires volunteers who are going to be regularly working in county offices to undergo a background screening before working in “secured areas” and that they must be under commissioner or staff supervision.

Morris and Sanchez gave McClure a chance to offer his response. McClure asked the Board if the reporter or candidate entered any other offices, or made any threatening gestures or actions that would make them feel uncomfortable. They had not. Sanchez commented that it wouldn’t matter to him who it was in the office, the meeting was part of Abel’s political campaign against Morris and shouldn’t have taken place there without McClure being present.

Historic City News would like to know exactly what it is that a reporter might have been seen or heard that concerned Chairman Morris, since he wasn’t in the office at the time. Also, the business of the County Commission is the business of the public. Media reporters have learned that where there is smoke there is usually fire. What does Commissioner Sanchez, Bennett, Stevenson, or Chairman Morris have to be afraid of from a citizen who works, votes, and pays taxes in St. Johns County?

Morris said that he didn’t want to see politics get in the way of the real issue — although it was pretty apparent from his comments and criticisms that politics was the issue. He went on to say that he has never been able to make Historic City News editor Michael Gold happy, “no matter what I do”, and Dan Abel has contacted at least one of his past supporters, who in turn reported to Morris that she would still support his re-election.

McClure also asked about Frances Neelands. She volunteered to work as an aide to three-term St. Johns County Commissioner Jim Bryant and was alone to work in his office on many occasions during his twelve years in office; ten of which were as Chairman. Sanchez immediately rebutted that Bryant was no longer on the Board and that “things have changed”.

Apparently they have changed quite a bit since the County built the 100,000-square-foot, $16.5-million St. Johns County administration building and auditorium, which opened its doors in September 2008. The building provides offices for each of the commissioners, the county administrator, the county attorney, management and budget, building operations, minutes and records, government television, personnel and land management.

The public is in and out of the building all the time. Citizens attend meetings, like the Industrial Development Authority, in rooms in the same area as the commissioner offices, as well as the County Auditorium. At the time the building was opened, reporters were told that the Administration Building also serves as a community shelter during severe weather events.

County Administrator Michael Wanchick told a reporter for IMETCO, the company that manufactured the metal roof system used on the building, “This building will facilitate greater public access to St. Johns County government and will help to serve the community with increased efficiency and convenience.”

Public access for St. Johns County citizens is often limited by who you are and why you want to know, when it comes to County Administration. Nonetheless, Wanchick said that several years were spent designing the new Administration, dubbed by many locals as the “Taj Mahal”. He also praised past Boards, “for their contributions towards such a well-designed community facility.” Did he say “community facility”?

Michael Gold

As the Florida editor for Watchdog Wire, my goal is to work with other citizen journalists, like you, to help compensate for the lack of mainstream news reporting to expose waste, fraud and abuse that exists in government. My colleagues at Franklin Center, and peers in the Citizen Watchdog movement, share a belief that government transparency and accountability is not a conservative or liberal idea - it is an American idea. A free flow of information is essential to maintaining our free republic, and that starts with a free press -- and that starts with you.

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Categories: Elections, Government Transparency, Must Read, News, Policy, Politics, Regulation, Waste, Fraud and Abuse
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