Did Panama City Beach City Officials Break the Law?

At the start of the New Year, the city of Panama City Beach was hit with a lawsuit by former clerk Diane Floyd. The charges could well be a bombshell for PCB politics, as it effectively supports many of the claims Burnie Thompson — now a city council candidate — has made on his Facebook Show throughout the past year. Not only that, but if the allegations are proven to be true, this is a case that could end in criminal charges.

Floyd’s suit claims that she was fired as the result of reporting improper practices in regard to public records requests. The trouble began when Mr. Thompson began making numerous records requests for records such as the emails of Panama City Beach Mayor Mike Thomas.

While initial compliance was not an issue, as Thompson became a bigger thorn in the side of City Manager Mario Gisbert, he asked for Ms. Floyd change the standard procedure for fulfilling these requests. In the suit she claims Gisbert demanded that she “run every request Thompson made before the legal department” and “to invoice him for her time and another employee Joe Smith’s time.” This led to requests costing thousands of dollars to fulfill.

Ms. Floyd, concerned that this was a breach of Florida Statues, found support from city attorney Amy Meyers, but her fellow counsel Cole Davis — himself a frequent target of Thompson’s show — sided with Gisbert. The suit claims that Ms. Floyd believed that Mr. Thompson “was being singled out.”

After her disagreement with the city manager on how to handle the request, her work load began to change. She was given more and more projects from Mr. Gisbert, on top her prior responsibilities — behavior that Ms. Meyers reportedly found “unusual”. It was during this time that Ms. Floyd made the mistake of not redacting the social security number of Councilman Hector Solis during a records request of another Panama City Beach resident.

This is where the law suit gets particularly interesting. According to Ms. Floyd, she was assured by the city’s legal department that her action was not a “major issue” because the police department had made the same mistake. In spite of this, a few weeks later, Mario Gisbert entered her office and offered her an ultimatum: “resign, or the Council is prepared to publicly humiliate you by letting you go during the next City Council meeting.” Ms. Floyd decided to step away.

What makes this particular aspect of the lawsuit important is that Gisbert’s admission appears to be a clear violation of Florida State Sunshine laws, which strictly restricts the ability of council members to conduct business outside of a public meeting. Gisbert’s threat implies that a consensus had been made by a majority of city council members. Given that Mayor Thomas, Councilman Reichert, and Mr. Gisbert have repeatedly been seen together in public at the conclusion of city meetings, it’s fair to wonder whether conversation may have drifted to the matter of Mr. Floyd. Thomas and Reichert’s vote, combined with Mr. Solis — who was reported outraged by the document’s release — would have provided the votes necessary to terminate Ms. Floyd. Such a conspiracy would also be quite illegal.

Further, Mr. Gisbert’s treatment of Ms. Floyd, as if she was an inferior officer, was never justified. While the City Manager does have authority over much of the city government according to the Panama City Beach Charter, he does not hold authority over the City Clerk. This separation of authority is important as a means to ensure full compliance with State code.

Now, of course, the simple act of filing a law suit does not ensure the accuracy of the charges. It is quite possible that Ms. Floyd’s story does not accurately capture what was going on in Panama City Beach City Hall last year. Luckily, given the nature of her claims and her prior position, the case’s validity should be fairly easy to prove. Obtaining the emails between Ms. Floyd, Mr. Gisbert, the legal department, and other relevant parties shouldn’t be complicated. Unfortunately, proving the threat made my Mr. Gisbert may be more difficult.

What is clear, however, is that if Ms. Floyd was indeed fired for questioning a deviation from standard procedure, in regards to public records requests, as a result of increased public scrutiny of city business — we have a much bigger issue here than a civil suit from a former employee.

The Florida Panhandle has already seen city officials in Tallahassee and DeFuniak Springs face criminal investigation in 2018. It’s quite possible Panama City Beach may as well.

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