by Eileen Kelley
By year’s end the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund and the city of Jacksonville will have spent at least $1.82 million in taxpayer money after being sued over public records- and meetings-laws violations. The city has been sued twice and the pension fund four times since 2010.
Throw in the 2,406.2 billable hours that attorneys for the city have expended defending its cases, and the total value of not following the state laws is more like $2.16 million.
Times-Union Editor Frank Denton filed a lawsuit in 2013 against the city of Jacksonville, Mayor Alvin Brown and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund’s board of trustees after learning that the two governmental entities had met in secret some 70 miles away to hammer out pension benefits. No notices of the meetings were given to the public ahead of time. In fact, the public only learned about the meetings after a pension reform bill was put up for a City Council vote.
Within months of the filing, a judge sided with Denton, but that didn’t end the legal showdown. It dragged on for years after the pension fund failed to concede and attempted to take the matter all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. In February the state’s highest court declined to hear the case.
The true cost to taxpayers for this fight was $459,927.
The newspaper won back its legal fees after the city, the pension fund and the paper’s lawyers agreed to a settlement: The pension fund must pay $156,000 and the city $114,000. In the end, all the money is coming from city taxpayers. The paper recently received its checks.
“The public-records and sunshine laws are neither complicated nor oppressive. They are simply the way government should do our business, transparently, in plain sight,” said Denton. “These violations are not misunderstandings and not so much legitimate disagreements about what the laws say and mean. Most of this is just obstinacy on the part of some government officials, with the tab paid for by the public. If these officials had to be responsible for their own legal fees, they’d be a lot more committed to respecting the law.”
Denton’s lawyer, Geoge Gabel, a partner with Holland & Knight, said the cost of not fighting the city and pension fund would have been even higher.
“For 15 years the city and the pension fund met outside the sunshine when the law clearly required collective bargaining in the public view every three years, and when the Denton lawsuit was filed, they fought hard to keep the status quo which had already resulted in hidden costs to the public. If it weren’t for the Times-Union, our city would be in an even deeper hole with its pension costs,” Gabel said. [READ MORE]