STUART — The wussies known as the Board of Martin County Commissioners opened their first meeting of 2018 this morning with no mention of the uncomfortable fact two of the five members of the board are under grand jury indictments and facing time in prison for their failure to surrender public records.
It seemed like business as usual for the board, with Commissioner Sarah Heard and Ed Fielding acting like being out of jail on bond doesn’t really matter and shouldn’t disqualify them from conducting county business.
Last year, Heard reneged on a deal with prosecutors to resign if they charged her only with a non-criminal violation akin to a traffic ticket. So last week, she was charged with two misdemeanor counts of refusal by a public official to produce public records. She surrendered to the county jail to be booked and fingerprinted Thursday night.
Fielding, who thinks he’ll be found not guilty, didn’t take any deal and is headed to a trial on similar charges later this year.
Interestingly, during the board meeting’s public comment period this morning, the dozen or so citizens who stepped up to speak to the commission also failed to bring up the gorilla in the board room.
But even if they wanted to, they were prevented from asking Heard and Fielding to resign.
Sometime during the holidays, Commission Chair Ed Ciampi codified traditional decorum rules that prevent citizens who address the commission from criticizing individual members or even telling any commissioner he needs to resign.
A half dozen people at the board chambers today addressed the newly written rules and called it a violation of their right to free speech, something that caused Ciampi to backtrack. He quickly promised to get rid of the rule in the near future.
“I never want to be a part of letting you (the public) feel that you don’t have the right to speak,” Ciampi said.
Heard, Fielding and former County Commission Anne Scott have all been arrested for failing to surrender emails from private servers to developers investigating why the commission suddenly started voting against them.
The emails were first requested by Lake Point, a mining company on the banks of Lake Okeechobee, more than three years ago. The company was out to prove that commissioners were illegally communicating and discussing public business in private, and conspiring with members of the public against Lake Point’s interests.
It took several years for the trio to produce their emails. When she was asked to show emails from her private Yahoo account, Heard claimed it had been hacked. In a civil lawsuit, several witnesses testified Heard was lying.
Florida law mandates public officials to surrender any form of communication dealing with their elected office within days of requests.
So far, the county has lost one civil lawsuit over Lake Point’s records request and was ordered to pay Lake Point $500,000 to cover legal bills.
And the commission voted last year to settle a second lawsuit brought by Lake Point, for breach of contract. Depending on how to calculate the loss to taxpayers, the county may end up having to pay more than $25 million to Lake Point. The commission, including Heard and Fielding, even voted to borrow money to pay for the settlement.