Sunshine Law Violations At the CRB:
Board Member Admits He Doesn't Know Law
Tony Estenoz and Two Other CRB Members Still Refuse To Make Incoming Complaints Available To Press-- Although Estenoz Admits: "We Don't Know the Law. We're Not Lawyers"
by Dennis Reeves Cooper
A number of readers have called asking why we here at Key West The Newspaper have recently been critical of the Citizen Review Board (CRB).
“After all,” one caller said, “you guys really pushed for the creation of a police oversight board back in 2002. Why has the board, all of a sudden, lost your support?”
We can assure you that the concept of the CRB has not lost our support.
Every community needs a strong CRB. The mere existence of a CRB changes police behavior. Just over the last two years alone. Complaints against Key West Police officers are down 60 percent. That probably has a lot to do with the new Police Chief here. But we think it also has a lot to do with the fact that there is a CRB here.
But we have some concerns that the board has apparently fallen into “disrepair”.
First of all, there seems to be an attendance problem. Chairman Charles Lee sometimes has trouble even getting a quorum to conduct business.
Some members travel a lot and often have to attend meeting by phone.
That’s better than not attending at all— but when they attend by phone, they can’t vote.
That is inexcusable. The CRB only meets twice a month. Members who find that they cannot attend meetings in person should resign to make room for someone who can show up.
But the most serious problem facing the CRB today is that some members apparently don’t see anything wrong with violating the Sunshine Law— even though this is potentially a criminal offense.
The founders of the CRB— the Committee For a Citizen Review Board (CCRB)— purposefully wrote into the City Charter that the CRB, like any other City agency, is subject to the Sunshine Law. That means that meetings must be open to the public and announced in advance, and that meeting minutes are kept; and that virtually any CRB document— including incoming complaints about police officers— are available to any citizen upon request.
But last November, when we here at KWTN made a public records request to get a copy of a complaint that we knew had just been filed with the CRB, our request was turned down. We were told that they were keeping incoming complaints confidential for 45 days to give the Key West Police Department (KWPD) an opportunity to conduct an internal investigation.
They said they didn’t want to risk embarrassing the police officer by allowing the complaint to go public before the investigation was complete.
Now, we are aware that, years ago, the police unions lobbied the State Legislature to pass a law that requires law enforcement agencies to keep complaints about law enforcement officers confidential for 45 days. That requirement is part of the Policeman’s Bill of Rights law. It applies only to law enforcement agencies.
So we asked the CRB: Why are you keeping incoming complaints confidential? The CRB is not a law enforcement agency. Under the Sunshine Law, any document that comes into the CRB office, including complaints about police officers, is a public record.
Here’s what they told us: “Well, several years ago, we sort of agreed to just go along with the KWPD’s confidentiality policy as sort of a courtesy thing.”
We informed the CRB that keeping incoming complaints confidential is a violation of the Sunshine Law and we asked that the policy be rescinded.
The ACLU also gave the CRB a written legal opinion: The confidentiality policy is illegal.
The attorney for the CCRB, who was one of the authors of the City Charter amendment that created the CRB, also attended one of the CRB meetings and told the board members: The confidentiality policy is illegal.
On the other hand, CRB Attorney Robert Cintron, of Morgan & Hendrick, has been consistently on the record as saying he is not really sure if the Sunshine Law applies to incoming complaints. So he asked the State Attorney General for an opinion. The Attorney General did send down an opinion, but no one who has read it has been able to understand it. Even Cintron calls it a “non-opinion”.
So then, Cintron convinced the CRB to actually file a lawsuit, suing the State to try to get a judge to rule on the issue. But the Attorney General filed a motion to dismiss— and, at that point, the members of the CRB just gave up trying to get some kind of legal opinion to support the board’s confidentiality policy.
But three members of the CRB— Adare Fritz, Tony Estenoz and Jane Rohrschneider— continue to refuse to vote to rescind the confidentiality policy. And, so far, that has been enough to keep the policy in place because, usually, no more than five of the seven board members show up in person at the meetings.
That’s why, last week, our Page One Commentary was headlined, “Three CRB Members Should Be Criminally Prosecuted On Sunshine Law Violations”. And that‘s why we are considering making a formal complaint to the State Attorney.
Attorney Cintron should advise his board to err on the side of caution.
Absent a solid legal opinion that a complaint coming in to the CRB is an exception to the Sunshine Law, that complaint should be considered a public document.
Ultimately, however, members of the Citizen Review Board who can’t understand the Sunshine Law should resign. Or be prosecuted.