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Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County Auditor Selection Committee: Trouble With the Sunshine Law – Was the Fix In Right Out of the Gate?

Photo of County Attorney Joel Foreman with headline: County Atty Joel Foreman -- He missed the mark on the Sunshine Law requirements of the Auditor Selection Committee

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – On April 26, 2024, Columbia County held its first Auditor Selection Committee meeting and then held three others. The Florida Sunshine Law is clear and specific – reasonable notice had to be given to advise the public of these meetings. This is Columbia County, home of the infamous County 5: reasonable notice was not given.

What is the Auditor Selection Committee?

Commission Chairman Ronald Williams: "I don't know what we need this for. We know who we want.Florida statutes (§ 218.391), the auditor selection law, establishes required procedures for the selection of auditors for counties, municipalities, and others. These procedures ensure that the selection is fair and that a qualified auditor is selected.

The members of the Auditor Selection Committee in Columbia County are: Commissioner Ronald Williams, Clerk of the Court Jay Swisher, Tax Collector Kyle Keen, Supervisor of Elections Tomi Brown, Property Appraiser Jeff Hampton, and Sheriff Mark Hunter. Because he is in the county charter, County Attorney Joel Foreman is also a member of the Committee.

On April 26, just short of two months ago, the Auditor Selection Committee had its first unnoticed meeting. Clerk of the Court Jay Swisher is responsible for promptly preparing the minutes. The minutes of the meeting are not available.

The purpose of the first meeting was an orientation to get the Committee up to speed about the requirements of the law and what it was supposed to do.

The Auditor Selection Committee agrees on the substance of a request for proposals (RFP) from qualified CPAs and firms and is required to reach out by public announcement and also provide interested firms with the RFP.

While this seems to be uncomplicated, one must remember this is Columbia County.

Before the First Meeting Was Gaveled to Order

Before the April 26 meeting was gaveled to order, County Commissioner Ron Williams quipped, "I don't know what we need this for. We know who we want."

owell & Jones managing partner Caleb Perla
Powell & Jones managing partner Caleb Perla at the first unnoticed meeting. How he found out about the meeting is anybody's guess.

Only one member of the public was in attendance at the unannounced meeting: Caleb Perla, CPA, the managing partner of Powell and Jones, the County's present auditor. As the meeting was not noticed, it is unknown how he found out about it.

The few comments that Mr. Perla made indicated that he was not keen on having to respond to an RFP, but rather just having the Powell and Jones contract renewed.

Mr. Perla travels without business cards, and the Powell and Jones website speaks for itself and the nature of doing business in North Central Florida.

Richard Powell of Powell and Jones had been doing Columbia County audits since the 80s. Recently, Mr. Perla purchased Powell and Jones, a fact that has been kept on the down-low and was neither mentioned by County Commissioner Williams, the Constitutional Officers, County Attorney Foreman, or Mr. Perla during the Auditor Selection Committee meeting.

Mr. Perla claims his firm is "built on a culture of trust and honesty."

Is the Auditor Selection Committee Governed by the Sunshine Law?

After about 20 minutes of chatter and orientation, your reporter asked County Attorney Foreman: "This Committee – Is this Committee operable under the Sunshine Law? They can't talk to each other. They can't communicate with each other about this."

County Attorney Foreman responded: "They're not technically subject to the Sunshine Law, but my advice is that they conduct themselves as if they are."

Your reporter followed up: "Are they or aren't they?"

County Attorney Foreman: "I couldn't find anything that says that they absolutely are."

County Atty Joel Forman: How Hard Did He Look To Make Sure the County Was In Compliance With Florida Sunshine Law?

During the April 26 Auditor Selection Committee meeting, the "Auditor Selection and Auditor Selection Committee Guidance" handbook was mentioned. It was subsequently sent to the County Attorney and Constitutional Officers.

The handbook is a publication of the State of Florida Auditor General.

In the question and answer section of the handbook, the question is asked: "Are the auditor selection committee meetings subject to the sunshine law?"

The answer was a simple, "Yes. Auditor selection committee meetings are subject to the sunshine law (i.e., noticing meetings and keeping minutes for all meetings)."

Additionally, the Florida Attorney General’s publication GOVERNMENT IN-THE-SUNSHINE MANUAL is clear: advisory boards and fact-finding committees whose powers are limited to making recommendations to a public agency and which possess no authority to bind that agency are subject to the Sunshine Law.

For among other reasons, the Auditor Selection Committee, not being a mere fact-finding committee, is subject to the Sunshine Law. (The information and case law supporting the Florida Auditor General's conclusion that the Committee is subject to the sunshine law can be found in the first few pages of the GOVERNMENT IN-THE-SUNSHINE MANUAL.

Other Problems

Purchasing Director Erica Jones.
Purchasing Director Erica Jones. It is unclear whether her inexperience or the Columbia County culture was the cause of her missteps.

While there was no notice or reasonable notice for the Committee meetings, a fact which makes every motion and vote not legal (voting must be done in the Sunshine, or it doesn't count). There were other issues which impacted the Committee's findings and conclusions.

Because what the Committee had done is moot, only the inexperience of the Purchasing Director is noted.

The Committee, by unanimous motion, asked the Purchasing Director to reach out and throw the widest net possible to get as many qualified responses to the RFP as possible. The Auditor General also recommends this.

Only two auditing firms responded. The Florida Auditor General recommends three.

The last time the Auditor Selection Committee met, four firms responded.

The Purchasing Director could have looked at the last RFP and contacted the names of the respondent firms. She didn't. It is unclear if she knew about the previous Committee outreach.

Three of Columbia County's Constitutional Officers (l to r): Property Appraiser Jeff Hampton, Supervisor of Elections Tomi Brown, Tax Collector Kyle Keen
Three of Columbia County's Constitutional Officers (l to r): Property Appraiser Jeff Hampton, Supervisor of Elections Tomi Brown, Tax Collector Kyle Keen. Not in photo, Clerk of Court Jay Swisher and Sheriff Mark Hunter. Photo taken at the first unnoticed Committee meeting.

Epilogue – Meetings not in the Sunshine

The County's Constitutional Officers and County Commissioners take an oath to uphold the laws. The County Attorney does not.

Tonight, the Auditor Selection Committee recommendation will be before Columbia County's infamous five.

It will be interesting to see if they stand by their Oaths of Office, which are designed to protect the citizens from, among other things, their breaking the law.

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