PALM HARBOR – The Palm Harbor Community Services Agency continued a campaign to mend fences with East Lake library representatives Feb. 15 while trying to put in place polices to avoid a similar breakdown in communication in the future.
The agency approved a letter that night inviting the East Lake Community Library Board a seat at the table during agency meetings. The East Lake representative would not vote on agency decisions but would have “the opportunity to share your advisory board’s thoughts, direction, activities as well as any input they have to the discussion at hand,” the letter states.
The letter, which came after a discussion on ways to improve the relationship with East Lake library during the agency’s annual retreat Jan. 28, also extended an open invitation to all members of the advisory board to attend monthly PHCSA (pronounced fik-sa) meetings.
Tension between the agency and the advisory board for the East Library erupted in October after the East Lake library director was reprimanded during a public meeting for “insubordination to PHCSA chair,” among other charges. In the aftermath of that meeting, the advisory board rejected the reprimand, arguing that Patricia Perez’s performance as a library director was more than adequate and that their opinion and input should have been solicited prior to any action against her.
An official letter of reprimand promised to Perez by then-Chairwoman Marguerite Smirlis has never been finalized or delivered. The letter of invitation, signed by the new PHCSA Chairman Rex Haslam, was handed to the advisory board chairman sitting in the audience during the PHCSA meeting Feb. 15.
Further confusing the ongoing issue, or perhaps exemplifying the complicated relationship between the agency and the entities it governs, is the matter of hours billed by attorney for the agency, Andrew Salzman.
The agency acts as the governing board on behalf of Pinellas County for East Lake Community Library, although it was originally intended to oversee only the Palm Harbor Library and Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation, both funded through an independent taxing district. As such, the directors for the agencies officially are employees of the agency.
Salzman also is an employee of the agency, hired on a retainer to advise on legal matters during public meetings and as a resource outside of public settings. The arrangement works out to an average of 7.5 billable hours a month, shared by the directors of all three entities as well as the PHCSA board. During October and November, before and after the reprimand, Smirlis spoke with Salzman on 12 separate occasions regarding the issue, amounting to about four hours of time and a collective charge of almost $500, according to Salzman’s bill.
Because the issue was about Perez, East Lake library footed the bill for that time, despite the fact that the library staff and advisory board were “not privy to that conversation,” Perez said.
“There’s an injustice,” she said.
After several meetings’ discussion on the issue, the agency agreed to a policy that would cap the amount of time PHCSA board members are allowed to spend consulting with the attorney to four hours a month. Using more than four hours requires prior approval of the board, which has the additional benefit of bringing a growing problem to the fore.
“If it’s going to be something more than that, it’s something that needs to come before this board to discuss,” Salzman said. “At some point you have to bring it out.”
Usually, Salzman’s time is split between the directors and only the PHCSA chair, with an occasional question or inquiry from another board member. The cap policy reserves some of the attorney’s billable hours for the directors, should they need legal consultation for day-to-day concerns.
The PHCSA board admitted that it was a unique set of circumstances that led to the increase of billable hours, one that might not be repeated again.
“Normally there was direction given by the board to do something and then the chairperson was acting on behalf of board. This was the chairperson acting on behalf of chairperson doing what chairperson thought they were supposed to do,” Salzman said.
Haslam suggested a change in the policy after it became apparent that “quite a bit of money was spent last year” on attorney hours, he said. However, the board wanted to keep the attorney open for questions in between monthly meetings.
“There’s such a wide gap between times we get together to make decisions,” board member Tom Seibert said. “For some of these things, time is of the essence.”
The board also is limited by Florida Sunshine laws, which prevent two members or more of a governmental agency from speaking about a pertinent issue outside of an advertised public meeting. The Sunshine laws prevented the board from discussing disciplinary action against Perez as a whole prior to a public meeting.
“In hindsight, I think we could have done ... things differently,” Salzman said.
To deal with similar situations in the future, the agency probably should call a special meeting to “discuss those issues appropriately,” he said.
As a final measure to increase communication, the PHCSA board assigned its seven members each as a liaison to one of the three entities. The liaisons are charged with visiting the advisory board of their respective entity as well as conducting its director’s annual evaluation, according to PHCSA documentation and discussion.
The East Lake library ended up with three liaisons: Seibert, Marcus Harrison and John Dove.