Former Walton County commissioner cleared of ethics allegations

CINDY MEADOWS (Photo by Dotty Nist)

By DOTTY NIST

The Florida Commission on Ethics (FCE) recently dismissed a complaint that had been filed in 2016 against then-Walton County District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows.

The FCE met on Dec. 8 in Tallahassee. In a press release circulated five days later regarding actions at the meeting, it was reported that the commission had approved a recommendation stating that there was no probable cause to believe that there had been a violation of ethics laws in connection with the complaint.

The complaint had been filed by Miramar Beach resident Randy Gardner on July 15, 2016, during the time when Meadows was running for re-election. The following month, Meadows lost the Republican Primary to her opponent Tony Anderson, who was sworn in as District 5 commissioner in November 2016.

The FCE considered three allegations at its Dec. 8 meeting, according to the release: that Meadows “misused her position to act without authority to expand her duties to hire and terminate county employees; that she ordered the planning director to serve a local business with a cease and desist order in response to complaints from her friends and political supporters about the business’s activities; and that she misused her position to direct the removal of a recreational vehicle from a lot that is visible from her street.”

In Gardner’s complaint, 10 pages in length plus numerous exhibits and materials, he alleged involvement by Meadows in county hiring and firing decisions, “improper” involvement with county code enforcement, an “attack” (verbal) on the county sheriff, and instances of failure to vote as a commissioner. Gardner accused Meadows of making false statements about alleged involvement by him with the Walton County Planning Commission that resulted in him being subjected to negative publicity in a newspaper and his undergoing a criminal investigation. (The investigation was concluded without any finding of wrongdoing.)

Gardner referenced and attached a copy of the 2015 Walton County Grand Jury Report, which had called for Meadows to be reprimanded for “failure to follow proper procedures in the hiring, firing and direction of County employees.” The report referred to a planning department employee being “terminated with little or no input from the department director and without following the County’s progressive disciplinary procedures,”—and stated that evidence had indicated Meadows wanted the employee terminated, followed by the firing being “directly ordered” by Walton County Administrator Larry Jones.

Gardner also referenced and attached a copy of a lawsuit complaint filed in September 2015 by Harry A. “Hal” Laird, IV, a county employee fired by administrator Jones in July 2015, which had named Walton County, Meadows, and Walton County Administrator Larry Jones as defendants. This was the planning department termination that had been discussed in the grand jury report.

In the complaint, Laird had maintained, among other allegations, that he had been terminated by Jones on the instruction of Meadows. In a court order issued after the filing of the ethics complaint, Meadows, along with Jones, had been removed from the lawsuit in March 2017. The court had ruled in favor of Meadows’ motion for summary judgment in which she had denied having any part in Laird’s firing. (Walton County approved a settlement with Laird to resolve remaining issues with the lawsuit in September 2017.)

Gardner provided the following written comment following the FCE decision of no probable cause: “I filed an Ethics Complaint against Commissioner Cindy Meadows because I believed she abused the position of authority she held. I stand by the facts placed before the Ethics Commission in my complaint. Each charge was fully documented with records, emails, etc. In one incident Commissioner Meadows summoned me to her office on October 5, 2015 and threatened me over a dispute involving the Planning Commission. As I was leaving Commissioner Meadows asked me, ‘if you had the power Randy would you remove My Appointee from the Planning Commission?’ My response was that I would do so. Her parting advice to me was ‘to be very careful who I cross.’ I subsequently was investigated on a fabricated charge of violating the Sunshine Law which the State Attorney’s Office later dismissed. Her threat and subsequent actions against me were typical of the way Commissioner Meadows abused the power of her office. This is why a large majority of Walton County voters retired her from Office last year.”

Meadows’ comment, provided by phone in the wake of the decision, was as follows: “I knew the complaint that was filed 30 days before the primary election was politically motivated by my opponent’s supporters. I always knew it had no merit. Thank you to the witnesses who told the truth.”