SARASOTA – As the Sunshine lawsuit against City Commissioner Susan Chapman heads to trial later this month, Chapman and her attorneys are revisiting an old argument: that the Sunshine Law is unconstitutional when applied to her case, infringing on her First Amendment rights.
Citizens for Sunshine — a nonprofit seeking compliance with the state’s open-government laws — filed the lawsuit against Chapman and Suzanne Atwell after the two commissioners attended a meeting in October 2013 with downtown merchants where issues, including homelessness, were discussed.
The lawsuit accused the commissioners of breaking open meetings laws by attending the conversation together. Chapman has argued that the meeting did not fall under the Sunshine Law, that the commissioners did not discuss anything that would come before the city commission and that the law does not apply to all meetings of which two or more board members attend.
Atwell settled for more than $17,000 in November 2013, agreeing to pay $500 to a charity and to attend a Sunshine Law training without having to admit any wrongdoing. Chapman refused a deal in April 2014 that would have required her to publicly admit that she violated the law, but would not require a monetary settlement.
As Chapman continues to fight the accusations, her attorneys fees at the end of June reached more than $202,000. When Chapman’s bills hit $88,000 last year, the city voted to stop funding her defense. That decision was reversed in January. The lawsuit — including fees related to Atwell — has cost the city more than $243,000.
The case will return to a judge next week, when Chapman’s attorneys will argue to amend a past defense that the Sunshine Law — as applied in this lawsuit — violates her First Amendment rights of assembly and freedom of speech. That was first argued in April 2014, prompting a judge to ask if Chapman’s defense was imposing a “constitutional challenge” to the Sunshine Law. Chapman’s attorney, William Fuller immediately responded “no,” adding that they were challenging the interpretation of the statute.
“That is not getting into the constitutionality of the law itself,” Fuller said at the hearing, “and we’re not challenging the constitutionality.”
Circuit Judge Kimberly Bonner dismissed that claim last year.
“Now, on the eve of trial, they filed a motion to plea specifically that the Sunshine Law is unconstitutional as applied to her conduct in this case,” Michael Barfield, a paralegal working with Citizens for Sunshine, said. “We thought that ship sailed. To us it’s too late and we want this case to get over with. We think that would have the potential to delay things and accumulate more cost to taxpayers.”
Chapman’s motion and the Citizens for Sunshine’s objection, filed by attorney Andrea Mogensen, will be heard Tuesday. The case is set to go to trial on Aug. 17.
Messages seeking comment from Chapman and her attorneys Fuller and Thomas Shults were not immediately returned.
Original article here.