By Suzy Kridner
NEW SMYRNA BEACH -- A retirement party for an outgoing City Commissioner has turned into "SoNapaGate," said Bob Tolley, a resident who keeps a close eye on city government.
Because the event was at a beachside restaurant owned by New Smyrna Beach Mayor Adam Barringer and attended by city officials and members and friends of City Commissioner James Hathaway, Mr. Tolley has filed complaints with the Florida Ethics Commission against Mayor Barringer, City Manager Pam Brangaccio and City Attorney Frank Gummey.
"The factual allegations in the complaints are flat out wrong despite the accuser having the documented truth," said City Attorney Frank Gummey in a statement from the city. The statement also states the city has retained the services of ethics counsel Mark Herron of Tallahassee.
In an interview recently, Mr. Tolley said what started out as such a trivial matter could have been handled with a simple apology instead of blossoming into "SoNapaGate."
The party was Nov. 19 at SoNapa Grille, the restaurant owned by the mayor and two others, and honored Mr. Hathaway who was retiring after 18 years as a City Commissioner.
A press release from the city states "city officials paid for their meals and senior staff members shared the cost of family and friends by fully reimbursing the city for credit card charges once the final bill was received." The final bill was $1,290.
The statement went on to say a "city credit card was used to pay expenses upfront with the understanding reimbursement was forthcoming."
The ethics complaint filed against Ms. Brangaccio said as a city manager with 30-plus years of public service, she knew, or should have known, the use of the restaurant owned by the mayor would violate Florida statutes by his hosting a by invitation only private party.
"Historically it has been standard practice for the city to honor multiple years of service with retirement events," Ms. Brangaccio said in the statement. "Since this was a private party, it was not funded by taxpayer dollars. City staff used their personal funds to cover dinner expenses as a retirement gift."
In the complaint submitted to the Ethics Commission, Mr. Tolley said the party was planned and facilitated by city staff at taxpayers' expense at the direction of the City Manager.
The ethics complaints against all three city officials said "city officials only began to acknowledge the use of taxpayers' funds being used to pay for a private party when confronted by the complainant (Mr. Tolley) and the press."
City Attorney Gummey said in the city's statement, "The fact of the matter is that a group of people may hold a party at any location as long as it is not funded with public dollars. The city bore no expense related to the restaurant or the dinners served."
According to the city's statement, The Commission on Ethics has stated it may take one of three actions on the complaints. It may dismiss the complaint for lack of legal sufficiency because it does not state a violation of laws. The commission may investigate and dismiss for lack of probable cause. Finally the commission may find probable cause and hold a hearing to review the evidence. The public cost to defend the complaints may range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars depending on the extent of the process, Mr. Gummey estimated.
"It's ironic that the cost to defend against these misconceived complaints will likely be more than the private funds spent on the event with which the complainant finds fault," he said.
The city's statement also says, "The City of New Smyrna Beach defers to the proceedings of the Commission on Ethics, which at this stage it holds confidential, and the representation by city-retained ethics counsel Mark Herron. The city anticipates having no further public discussion of this matter until it is resolved by the Commission on Ethics."
City Manager Brangaccio serves as chairman of the Ethics Committee for the Florida City and County Management Association.