July 11, 2016 – The Herald Tribune Editorial
Circuit Judge Brian A. Iten’s ruling last week applied the narrow definition of Florida’s open-government law in favor of Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman — rejecting broader applications used by other courts and cited by the plaintiffs.
The decision and this case, which divided the commission and the community, showed how difficult it can sometimes be to determine whether the law was violated.
This dispute is not over: A spokesman for the plaintiffs, Citizens for Sunshine, said Monday they intend to appeal.
At the heart of the case was what the plaintiffs asserted was a meeting — subject to state law and, therefore, requiring public notice, public access and the recording of minutes — and what Iten concluded was a “gathering” of citizens attended by Chapman, fellow Commissioner Suzanne Atwell, City Manager Tom Barwin, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown and others.
This is Iten’s succinct description of what transpired Oct. 10, 2013: “Here, a gathering clearly occurred. Issues were discussed at said gathering that were reasonably foreseeable to come before the City Commission. The gathering was not open to the public. No prior notice was provided. Minutes were not taken.”
So, Iten wrote, “the sole issue to be resolved is whether or not the gathering was a ‘meeting’ under the Sunshine Law.”
In our view and experience, there is cause for concern, if not a potential violation of the law, when such conditions prevail and two elected officials from the same board are in attendance.
When Citizens for Sunshine sued, we urged the City Commission to settle the case rather than engage in costly litigation. The city had already settled three open-government lawsuits. [READ MORE]