When a reader text messaged Gabber reporter Cathy Salustri and asked the identity of two people talking about building a concert bandshell by the Recreation Center, the reporter asked him to snap a photo with his phone so she could tell him who they were.
Councilman-elect Michael Fridovich and Councilwoman-elect Christine Brown met at a St. Petersburg coffee shop on Monday, March 7. They discussed, among other things, Clam Bayou. When we asked them if they’d met, both said yes, but Councilman Fridovich told us they didn’t talk about city issues.
Councilwoman-elect Brown tells a different story: she, too, told the Gabber she met with Mr. Fridovich, but in addition to talking about their backgrounds, she told the Gabber they did talk about some local issues but maintained that they did not discuss how they intended to vote or otherwise violate Government-in-the-Sunshine laws.
A reader in the coffee shop, who text messaged this reporter when he overheard two people talking about a proposed concert bandshell in Gulfport, corroborated Councilwoman Brown’s recollection of the afternoon’s events. The reader contacted the Gabber requesting clarification about the bandshell and also asked this reporter to identify the two people. The Gabber asked this reader – who asked that we withhold his name for “fear it would adversely affect any issue” he might have before the council in the future – to send a photo to help identify the people talking. The photo shows Councilwoman-elect Brown and Councilman-elect Fridovich.
The reader overheard comments about not only the bandshell, but the marina layout, branding the city, and Clam Bayou.
“I wouldn’t say they were in collusion; that wasn’t the spirit of the conversation,” he said. “It was more that they were talking about these issues.”
In the middle of researching this article, Councilman-elect Fridovich called this reporter and said, “the rumor is that you’re doing a story on me that I violated sunshine– and the answer is no, I did not.”
As part of that conversation, we asked Councilman-elect Fridovich if he had talked to Councilwoman-elect Brown about anything the council “could conceivably vote on” and he told the Gabber “no”. Later in the conversation he clarified that he had not discussed “these are my issues; can you support them?” with Councilwoman-elect Brown.
“Christine Brown and I had a discussion. She told me she was from Hawaii, she’s lived here for a while, personal things... and that’s where we went. We did a cup of coffee, purely on a ‘who are you?’ It was public, it wasn’t behind closed doors. There was nothing... no Sunshine violations at all.”
He says, other than attending fundraisers, he has not spoken to any of the other council members.
In light of this discussion, we asked every councilmember who could remain on the dais after the March election if they’d had any conversations with the incoming councilmembers. We did not tell them about the interaction between the two incoming councilmembers or why we were asking.
All but one councilmember told us no, they had not had any interactions.
Councilman Dan Liedtke told the Gabber Councilman-elect Fridovich approached him.
“He wanted to meet with me a couple of times and I said ‘I’m not available.’,” Councilman Liedtke said. “You’ve got to err on the side of caution.”
According to Gulfport City Attorney Andy Salzman, councilmembers must begin following Government in the Sunshine laws “upon election.”
“So what is election?” Mr. Salzman said. “Not everybody agrees, ‘what is upon election’?"
He said that the Attorney General had not issued an opinion on the topic, but did note that Gulfport’s code of ordinances, in Article V, Section 505 (b), does make the time of election for unopposed candidates clear:
“Any unopposed candidates' names shall not be placed on the general election ballot and said unopposed candidates shall be declared elected...” the code reads.
“Upon election to public office loses his or her status as a private individual. I try to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” City Attorney Salzman said of his position. “I prefer people not having to defend themselves.”
Councilman-elect Fridovich told us he disagreed with the city attorney’s interpretation of Government–in–the–Sunshine laws, which dictate how and when anyone elected to a government board may speak to other members of the same board about issues that could come before the board for a vote. Mr. Salzman, however, maintained that his interpretation protected elected officials from accusations of impropriety.
“Once the allegation has been made,” City Attorney Salzman said, “it’s difficult to unring the bell.”
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.