The Florida Times-Union by Christopher Hong
February 28, 2019
The Jacksonville Ethics Commission wants to begin investigating and imposing penalties for non-criminal violations of Florida’s open government laws, an idea gaining traction inside City Hall after a State Attorney’s Office investigation found City Council members regularly spoke privately on the phone but failed to uncover evidence that met the high threshold necessary to file criminal charges.
However, it’s not clear whether the commission has the authority to do that. The city’s general counsel Jason Gabriel said local governments are unable to enforce the state’s open records and Sunshine laws, although he hasn’t formally responded to the commission’s request for a binding opinion yet.
Earlier this month, State Attorney Melissa Nelson declined to prosecute the six council members and a council staffer who her office spent nearly a year investigating for potential violations of the Sunshine Law, which prohibits council members from discussing government business outside of public meetings.
A detailed report on the investigation illustrated how difficult it can be to prosecute violations of the law.
Phone records revealed the council members exchanged numerous phone calls over a five-month period, but investigators needed convincing evidence the council members talked about official business in order to file charges.
Since violations of the law are misdemeanors, investigators were prohibited from using investigative methods like wiretaps or search warrants. Instead, investigators relied on testimony from the people who spoke on the phone, which led them to a dead end.