A Tallahassee appellate court Tuesday upheld a local ruling that the city of Jacksonville violated the state’s Government in the Sunshine law during pension negotiations in 2013.
In the three-judge decision, the 1st District Court of Appeal unanimously rejected arguments that Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace erred when he ruled in favor of the Sunshine lawsuit filed by Times-Union Editor Frank Denton.
“We expected this ruling, because Judge Wallace’s decision was so righteous, and we are very pleased at the clarity and firmness of the appeal court decision,” Denton said. “Government officials should take careful note of what the courts are telling them: The law requires that your meetings be open to the public, so your bosses can see what you’re doing.”
Wallace in his 2013 ruling found the city and the Police and Fire Pension Fund had “confidential, non-public collective bargaining negotiations” where public talks were required in violation of the state’s open records law.
The judge listed a series of ways the earlier talks violated state law, noting sessions weren’t open to the public, were conducted without reasonable notice and without minutes being taken — all requirements of public meetings under state law.
The ruling, written by Judge Clayton L. Roberts, called Wallace’s decision “well-reasoned and sound.”
“By holding closed-door negotiations that resulted in changes to the public employees’ pension benefits, the appellants ignored an important party who also had the right to be in the room — the public,” Roberts said in his ruling.
Mayor Alvin Brown told the council the deal he negotiated would save the city $1.2 billion over 30 years and had to be voted up or down. The council turned it down, saying a more complete reworking of the retirement system was needed.
Councilman Bill Gulliford, who was council president at the time the pension deal was rejected, said Tuesday the appeals court ruling demonstrated that the council was correct.
“If we’d approved that deal and the judge had ruled the way he did, we would probably be $40 to $50 million in the hole now,” he said.
The appeals court also ruled that the city must pay Denton’s attorney fees for the appeals portion of the lawsuit. Wallace had previously ruled that the city would have to pay attorney fees for the trial portion of the lawsuit.
Times-Union attorney George Gabel said it had not yet been determined how much the city would have to pay. Wallace will likely decide the amount due after having a hearing.
Gabel said the benefit of this lawsuit is that it made clear that all future negotiations must be conducted in public.
Wallace determined the Police and Fire Pension Fund acted as a representative of the police and firefighter unions, meaning the fund was engaged in collective bargaining on pension benefits.
After Wallace ruled, lawyers for the city and the police and fire union argued that the closed-door meetings were not collective bargaining and therefore not governed by the Sunshine law. Attorneys for the police and fire union also argued that Denton should have gone to the state Public Employee Relations Commission to get a ruling from it on whether the mediation talks amounted to collective bargaining.
But the appeals court rejected both arguments.
Attorneys for the city and the police and fire union did not return phone calls and emails Tuesday.
The ruling also could affect the current 30-year agreement between the city and the police and fire union since it also was negotiated behind closed doors in 2001.
Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County and Jacksonville resident Curtis Lee have filed a separate lawsuit asking a judge to throw out that agreement, but Circuit Judge Thomas Beverly has not yet issued a ruling.
Brown and the pension fund returned this year for another round of negotiations that were conducted in public sessions at City Hall.
The City Council has not voted yet on that pension reform proposal but is expected to take it up during a special meeting Wednesday.