SEBASTIAN, Fla. — The first witnesses took the stand Tuesday in the trial for former city of Sebastian councilmembers Damien Gilliams and Pamela Parris.
The former council members, who were removed from office following a special election last fall, are charged with violating the sunshine law and perjury.
Gilliams, Parris, and a third council member, Charles Mauti, who took a plea deal agreeing to cooperate in this trial, are accused of holding an illegal meeting where they voted to fire the city manager, city clerk, city attorney and remove the mayor.
In his opening statement, Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans described the allegations as a "pandemic power grab," that sought to use "the pandemic restrictions to get around what held these people back from getting the power they want."
Jurors first heard from the city's MIS Manager, Barbara Brooke-Reese, who oversees the city's cameras, audio and visual recordings, and technical needs.
She walked jurors through surveillance video showing the moments leading up to and following the alleged illegal meeting on April 22.
Gilliams, Parris, and Mauti are seen inside the chambers despite the regularly scheduled meeting being advertised as postponed by the city.
Several members of the public are allowed inside, some who Brooke-Reese identified as members of the Sebastian Homeowners Association in which Gilliams served as president.
"You will see it is clearly not open to the public," Evans said.
Brooke-Reese pointed out a moment before the alleged illegal meeting started where one of the attendees pulled the doors shut as a woman outside was trying to get inside.
"That's a member of the public, and she is actually pulling on the doors," Brooke-Reese described.
The state did point out that the doors automatically lock when closed but would be unlocked for regular council meetings.
Brooke-Reese testified that she was given information from the city manager that the meeting had been postponed because the city had been inundated with emails and calls from members of the public not wanting to hold the meeting during the early phases of the pandemic.
They said "hot button" items were on the original agenda, including removing the mayor, adding health benefits for city council members, and other pandemic-related topics.
There were capacity restrictions in place, but the city was still working to set up outside seating and allow Zoom participation as a 10-person restriction was implemented inside city hall.
The defense argued that the city successfully held a meeting in March through Zoom and other social distancing measures so there was no reason to postpone the April 22 meeting.
In the alleged illegal meeting, Gilliams is accused of creating a new agenda, not following the originally posted agenda, where in 8.5 minutes, the three council members voted to oust various top city officials.
"They remove the mayor, and install Damien Gilliams as the new mayor," Evans told jurors.
The meeting ended shortly after a supporter of Gilliams, who was recording the meeting with his cellphone, said "here come the police," according to Evans.
But attorneys for Gilliams and Parris argue that the meeting should have never been canceled and was done so without enough notice to the public. Therefore, they felt it was still legal to hold the meeting.
Regarding the perjury charges, an attorney for Parris said she was never properly informed that she was being interviewed for a criminal investigation when she met and was interviewed by the state attorney's office.
They also say there was mixed communication about whether the meeting had been canceled, though the state says phone records will prove otherwise for Gilliams and Parris.
"I was confused about what was going on, so I showed up to the meeting is what she said," according to Parris' attorney.