ST. PETE BEACH — The nonprofit group that publishes the official guide for public officials on the state's Sunshine Law claims the City Commission has violated that law.
The First Amendment Foundation Inc. filed an amicus curiae brief Wednesday supporting the appeal by resident Bruce Kadoura of a case he brought against the city.
Kadoura, who recently lost a close election for mayor, filed multiple lawsuits against the city relating to the city's comprehensive plan.
In the case, he claims the city violated the Sunshine Law when it rejected a settlement offer and made a counter offer during a closed meeting with its attorneys.
Last year, Circuit Judge David Demers privately reviewed transcripts of a number of the City Commission's shade meetings and found "the meetings did not violate the Sunshine Law."
Although the judge found that "most" of the shade meeting discussions involved legal settlements and litigation strategies, he agreed the commission had made "some decisions" related to counterproposals.
State law allows local governments to meet privately with their attorneys to discuss strategy or settlement when they are sued, but it does not allow those "shade" meetings to include actions or decisions that should require formal action at a public meeting.
The foundation's brief to the 2nd District Court of Appeal maintains that Demers' ruling was in error.
"When a commission makes an unconditional offer which, if accepted, would finally settle a case without further action at a public hearing, the commission has violated the Sunshine Law by deciding to settle a case during a shade meting without public input or discussion," the foundation stated in its brief to the court.
The foundation maintains such a violation is an "irreparable injury" to the public.
The trial judge's decision in effect leaves it up to the city to decide if it is violating the Sunshine Law, according to the foundation.
"The trial court's decision converts any properly noticed shade meeting into a shield against disclosure, regardless of the subject of the discussions or whether final decisions are made," the brief states.
The brief notes that the city "consistently refused to produce the transcripts" of the shade meetings and "denied that any violation occurred."
The foundation's brief cited substantial case law relating to the Sunshine Law and concluded "the city did violate the Sunshine Law" by making decisions in shade meetings to settle pending litigation and approved counter-offers that should have been discussed in open meetings.
Ironically, in a special commission meeting Wednesday called to set a run-off election for mayor, the commission gave City Attorney Mike Davis permission to release some shade meeting transcripts "as a means of reducing your expenses."
The commission had met in a shade meeting prior to the public meeting.
How the transcript release will affect Kadoura's appeal or a related Sunshine Law violation case filed by resident Jim Anderson was not clear.
Ken Weiss, attorney for both Kadoura and Anderson, maintains the city deliberately uses shade meetings to avoid discussing controversial decisions in public.
The city's attorneys insist the commission has completely abided by the Sunshine Law.