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Columbia County Observer

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Suw Valley TA Chief Fails at End Run Around Law Improperly Noticed Mtng Canceled at 12th Hr

COLUMBIA, HAMILTON, SUWANNEE COUNTIES, FL – The Suwannee Valley Transit Authority (SVTA) is an independent special district which serves the transportation disadvantaged in Columbia, Hamilton, and Suwannee Counties. It makes virtually no money; is fully supported by tax dollars; and is run by Suwannee County Commissioner Larry Sessions. In the past, Com. Sessions has shown that he is not pleased with Florida's meeting notice requirements.

Before yesterday's 12th hour cancellation of its improperly noticed and posted Board meeting, Commissioner Sessions and the SVTA made a full court press trying to find someone to help the SVTA make an end run around the law.

A Little History

More SVTA articles

In 2012, it was determined that the SVTA had gone over $2mil in the red. It has been problematic, ever since.

The SVTA board is composed of two county commissioners from each of Columbia, Hamilton, and Suwannee Counties.

In April 2015, Commissioner Sessions accepted the position of Administrator of the SVTA. He resigned his seat on the SVTA board, but kept his seat on the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners.

Commissioner Sessions had claimed that he had an opinion from the Ethics Commission that being a Commissioner of Suwannee County and the Administrator of the tri-county SVTA was not a conflict. However, he later explained that the opinion was from a member of the ethics commission that he had met at a function.

Commissioner Sessions has had issues with Florida public record and meeting notice compliance.

Florida Legislature Makes Special Districts Accountable
Accountability Takes a Back Seat at the SVTA

Transparency in special districts has been problematic in Florida.

On July 1, 2014, the Uniform Special District Accountability Act became law.

This law (189.015 Meetings; notice; required reports) calls for the SVTA to "advertise the day, time, place, and purpose of any meeting other than a regular meeting... at least 7 days before such meeting, in a newspaper of general paid circulation in the county or counties in which the special district is located."

Commissioner/Administrator Sessions couldn't get that right.  He advertised the abbreviated name of the Suwannee Valley Transportation Authority, "SVTA." It is not clear how anyone would know what the SVTA is.

In section 189.069 (Special districts; required reporting of information; web-based public access), the Florida Legislature and the Governor brought special district reporting into the 21st century.

The law required the SVTA to post 16 specific items on its website. Number 16 required the following:

16. At least 7 days before each meeting or workshop, the agenda of the event, along with any meeting materials available in an electronic format, excluding confidential and exempt information. The information must remain on the website for at least 1 year after the event. (emphasis added)

The SVTA did not do that for its March 6 special meeting. It hasn't done that for any meeting.

On March 2, 2017, the Observer published the article, Columbia Cnty Commr's Nash & Phillips: 2 Who Turn Their Backs on Columbia Cnty Residents, discussing the SVTA and Columbia County meeting conflicts.

Also, on March 2, the SVTA calendar still did not list the March 6 meeting, nor was its agenda posted.

On March 3 at 7:15 am, the Observer published the article, Suwannee Valley Transit, More Meeting Issues Nash Steps Up, "If It's Not Legal – We'll Cancel It", which gave more information about the illegality of the upcoming SVTA meeting.

Commissioner Sessions Goes Into Action
Tries an end run around the law

Teresa Fortner (left) Commissioner Sessions (right). Ms. Fortner's daughter runs the SVTA website. (file)

Sometime early Friday morning, March 3, Com/Admin Sessions enlisted his deputy and former interim SVTA Administrator Teresa Fortner to call the Attorney General's office for advice on the notice requirements of section 189.015.

According to Ms. Fortner's notes, the Attorney General told her to call Law Revision and Information at 850-488-8403, which she did, sometime before 10:24 am.

Ms. Fortner followed up her conversation with an email to the Law Revision and Information Office.

She wrote: I just spoke with Arnold Cooperman (?) regarding a question of advertising Special District, Special Called Board of Directors meeting for Suwannee Valley Transit Authority.

He went through the statutes with me regarding the need to advertise on our Agency's website. We determined that there was no rule in the statutes that require as such.

My Administrator, Larry Sessions, would like to know if you could put that information in email form, stating such.

Emails between the SVTA and the State

After a couple of emails back and forth, Arnie Cooperman responded to Ms. Fortner: "Ms. Fortner, As I stated on the phone, I did not find any requirement for website notice of a special district meeting..."

Friday Afternoon, March 3
SVTA Inserts Meeting on its Web Calendar

At approximately 2:20 pm, March 3, Barbara Lemley called the SVTA and spoke with Ms. Fortner.

According to Ms. Lemley, she told Ms. Fortner, "I read on the Observer that the meeting would be cancelled."

"Ms. Fortner told me, 'It's on the website. It's on the calendar.'"

Ms. Lemley checked the website and found that the meeting had been added to the calendar.

Ms. Lemley followed up, "I don't see what it is about."

Ms. Fortner said, "We advertised it in the newspaper."

Ms. Lemley said she told Ms. Fortner, "I don't get the newspaper."

By the close of business on Friday afternoon March 3, and after being in contact with the Columbia County, County Attorney, who had already deemed the meeting improperly noticed and illegal, advising Columbia County Commissioners Nash and Phillips of the same, the SVTA still refused to cancel Monday's meeting.

Monday, March 6: the meeting lingers for 3 hours; finally canceled

Columbia County Commissioners Phillips (left) and Nash at the SVTA.                                 (file)

On Monday morning, March 6, Columbia County Commissioner Everett Phillips returned your reporter's Friday call.

Commissioner Phillips said, "I spoke with Ms. Fortner on Friday morning. She said she didn't know anything about that the meeting had to be on their [website]. After I spoke with Joel [County Attorney Joel Foreman] I was sure it was going to be cancelled after Friday, but nobody told me that over there until this morning."

Also on Monday, March 6, shortly after lunch, your reporter spoke with Ms. DD Raggins, Finance Director of the SVTA. Your reporter asked to speak with Commissioner Sessions, but was told he wasn't in and Ms. Fortner was busy.

At 11 am the SVTA website calendar listed the meeting as scheduled. Ms. Raggins said, "The meeting is cancelled. We posted cancellation notices on the door. I'm not sure if it's on the website yet, but it is cancelled... It got cancelled this morning ... say 11 o'clock ... It hasn't been that long."

At 11:31 am on March 6, the home page of the SVTA website said, "Tonight's special called board meeting has been cancelled. (3/6/2016)"

By March 7 at 1:33 pm, the home page of the website announced that the meeting "had been changed to March 13, 2017 at 6:00 pm)."


Sessions Misses the Boat – Again

Florida's notice requirements are crystal clear for the rescheduled March 13 SVTA meeting. The SVTA must "advertise the day, time, place, and purpose of any meeting other than a regular meeting... at least 7 days before such meeting, in a newspaper of general paid circulation in the county or counties in which the special district is located."

Mr. Sessions and the SVTA Board missed the boat again. In order for the meeting to be properly noticed and legal, it had to be advertised in today's March 7 newspaper.

It wasn't.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On March 9, 2017, "Big Bird" wrote:

Dear Editor, Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the ................... Doesn't the SVTA have a paid attorney? Does the SVTA know the difference between cancel and postpone? Did Com/Adm Sessions really go to West Point? Why are they building a chicken ahem sh!t factory in Foat White when you already got one in Live Oak, Sessions/SVTA? Yours truly,  Big Bird

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