By Kristen M. Daum
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WELLINGTON — A village staff committee responsible for approving development projects has apparently violated state laws by failing to keep consistent records of its public meetings for at least a decade.
An analysis by The Palm Beach Post found significant gaps in record-keeping for Wellington’s Development Review Committee since January 2004.
Most notably: More than half of the more than 200 meetings in that time have no written minutes, including almost all of the meetings held in a five-year span between 2006 and 2011.
That means the required record that’s supposed to document the decision-making process of the committee doesn’t exist for more than 100 meetings, which involved projects varying from the controversial Equestrian Village plan to the construction of a Dunkin’ Donuts off Forest Hill Boulevard.
Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis called The Post’s findings “extremely disturbing” when told of them Friday. He said he plans to discuss the problem with other village leaders during council meetings this week.
“If it’s more than one time, it’s not just a mistake — there seems to be a habit here,” Margolis said. “It’s a violation of the law, and we’re better than that.”
At issue: Were laws broken?
Other village officials won’t definitively say whether laws have been broken, but an expert in open government and a 2005 advisory opinion from the Florida attorney general say the Development Review Committee is subject to the Sunshine Law.
“I’ve always thought of minutes as a no-brainer,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.
Petersen said the situation in Wellington raises two issues: “Did they violate the Sunshine Law through the failure to take minutes, and have they violated the public records law for failure to retain those minutes?”
State law requires minutes of local government meetings to be kept permanently. Audio recordings of those meetings must be kept for at least two years.
Village Attorney Laurie Cohen declined to comment on the DRC’s missing records but argued the law is unsettled as to whether it is a public board.
“You have to look at the way in which the particular body functions to determine whether it would be subject to Sunshine or public records requirements,” Cohen said.
Margolis said he plans to talk with Cohen — and potentially also with the Palm Beach County state’s attorney and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi about whether an investigation is needed into Wellington’s record-keeping.
“I’m not trying to put anybody on trial or place blame,” Margolis said, “but it’s inexcusable to see what’s happening.”
He said if the village faces litigation, then “shame on us. We put ourselves in this position.”
Panel’s future uncertain
The findings of DRC’s questionable record-keeping comes as village leaders are deciding whether to dissolve the committee and designate a single village employee to certify project applications based on recommendations from other members of Wellington’s staff.
Village planners have said repeatedly the proposal isn’t intended to circumvent the Sunshine Law: The approval process would remain the same and public meetings would still be held. Formally dissolving the committee would simply allow the village staff to discuss project applications on a daily basis, something they can’t do now because of Sunshine restrictions.
Most municipalities have some form of a development review committee. They’re the gatekeepers: determining whether development proposals meet the minimum standards of village code and then deciding whether the projects go to the village planning board and village council for official approval.
In Wellington, the DRC’s membership is fluid and could involve any number of planners, building officials, engineers or other staff members, depending on their expertise and their involvement in a specific project, said Tim Stillings, the planning and development services director. There’s no chairman and there are no recorded votes: Either a project passes muster or it doesn’t, Stillings said.
Generally, staff committees in local governments don’t have to be open to the public. However, development review committees are viewed differently by the state because of the power they wield.
A 2005 advisory opinion from then-Attorney General Charlie Crist states the boards are subject to the Sunshine Law because the staff members are “delegated the authority to make recommendations to a board or official.”
Audio records exist
In responding to a public records request from The Post, Wellington Village Clerk Awilda Rodriguez found audio recordings exist for the 112 meetings since 2004 that had no written minutes. However, the Sunshine Law states audio recordings aren’t an acceptable replacement for written minutes.
Rodriguez identified four meetings that had neither minutes nor audio recordings, but she said decisions by the DRC are available in individual project files at the planning office. At the end of last week, she was still researching at least eight meeting dates to see if the proper documentation or audio recordings existed.
For the 94 DRC meetings where The Post did find written minutes, there still appear to be problems.
The discussions leading to the DRC’s decisions are rarely detailed. Petersen, of the First Amendment Foundation, said that’s questionable under the law because minutes are supposed to be “an accurate reflection of what occurred.”
“If I missed the meeting, I should be able to go back and look at the minutes and know who said what, which member voted for this to go forward or what concerns were raised,” she said.
Margolis questions whether the missing minutes correspond to particular projects, potentially signaling favorable treatment by village staff.
However, the inconsistencies found by The Post don’t appear to be tied to any particular project. The scope of the problem is so vast and long-running that it spans the careers of multiple village officials and leadership administrations and involves a variety of major developments.
By the numbers: Missing records
The Palm Beach Post analyzed village records dating back to January 2004 to determine whether proper agendas and meeting minutes have been kept for Wellington’s Development Review Committee. For meetings in which records weren’t readily available on the village website, The Post filed a public records request to determine if the documents existed.
The combination of those efforts found that at least 218 meetings of the Development Review Committee were held in that 10-year span. Of those:
— 43 percent — or 94 meetings — have the required agendas and minutes on file with the village.
— 51 percent — or 112 meetings — have no written minutes but audio tapes of the meetings are available, according to the village clerk. Those include all but a few meetings held in the five-year span between early 2006 and early 2011.
— 2 percent — or at least four meetings — have no minutes or audio recordings, but the results of the meetings are available in individual project files, according to the village clerk.
— 4 percent — or at least 8 meetings — are still being researched by the village clerk to determine whether minutes or audio recordings exist.
Source: Palm Beach Post analysis
PROJECTS UNDER PURVIEW
Most municipalities have some form of a development review committee. They’re generally comprised of planning and engineer staff. They determine whether development proposals meet the minimum standards under code and then decide whether the projects move on for official approval.
In Wellington, major projects discussed and/or certified by the DRC in recent years include:
— Equestrian Village and other upgrades to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Cente, off Pierson Road.
— Dunkin’ Donuts off Forest Hill Boulevard.
— Wellington Regional Medical Center off Forest Hill Boulevard and State Road 7.
— The Shoppes at Isla Verde off SR 7.
— Life Covenant Church campus off SR 7.
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