by Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s Zack Murdock
November 20, 2016
Citizens for Sunshine has appealed a judge’s ruling last summer clearing City Commissioner Susan Chapman of any Sunshine Law violations for a private meeting she and another Sarasota city commissioner attended more than three years ago.
Late last month the public records advocacy group asked the Florida Second District Court of Appeal to overturn the ruling on the grounds that Chapman’s mere attendance at the meeting alongside other city officials — not whether she actively participated in the discussion — broke state public meeting rules.
The controversial case centers around an October 2013 private meeting among downtown business owners, city administrators, police officials, Chapman and Commissioner Suzanne Atwell concerning the homeless in downtown Sarasota.
Although the meeting was not advertised to the public and concerned an issue the City Commission would consider publicly a few weeks later, the gathering that morning did not technically qualify as a “meeting” among public officials trying to make a decision, as the Sunshine Law is designed to cover, Circuit Court Judge Brian Iten concluded in July.
But Iten’s ruling also issued a stern warning that his legal conclusion “should not be deemed an endorsement” of Chapman’s attendance at the meeting, which bucked the Florida Supreme Court “admonition” that elected officials should leave a private meeting forthwith to avoid the appearance of impropriety, he wrote.
The appeal is no surprise — both sides of the case had pledged to appeal a loss.
The attorneys working on the case have suggested it is destined to reach the state Supreme Court for final judgment, cementing Chapman’s name in case law for years to come.
Last week the E.W. Scripps Co., First Amendment Foundation, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, Florida Press Association and Media General Operations filed a joint amicus brief in support of Citizens for Sunshine’s appeal over the objection of Chapman’s attorney, Thomas Shults, according to court records. Media General is a national media company that owns more than 70 television stations, including Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA.
The brief argues Iten’s decision leaves the door open for elected officials to meet without “deliberating” and forces a court to decide whether a violation of the law occurred afterward.
“This approach is unworkable, of course, because it is backward-looking: After the meeting is over, a court must then retrospectively review what the Commissioners did, and determine whether their actions at the gathering turned the gathering into a ‘meeting,’ ” the brief states. “But such a procedure turns the Sunshine Laws on their head and frustrates the core mandate to provide the public with a full and noticed opportunity to be present and heard.”
Shults has until Dec. 16 to file a reply to the appellate court. He said he is likely also to file a reply to the amicus brief at the same time.
City Attorney Robert Fournier and commissioners agreed earlier this year that the city should continue to defend the case.
Separate from the appeal, the fight over hundreds of thousands of dollars in court and attorneys fees will continue before Iten in Circuit Court.
A hearing on whether Citizens for Sunshine should pay just over $20,000 in court fees alone has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 28.
To date the city has paid about $350,000 in attorneys fees to defend Chapman throughout the case, and the city has filed a motion to force Citizens for Sunshine to repay those costs. Attorneys for both sides expect that could be a lengthy fight of its own. [READ MORE]