ST. PETE BEACH — A new lawsuit against the city challenges the fine line between the public's right to know what its officials are discussing and the ability of those officials to mount legal battles in secret.
At issue are two rights established in law — the state's Sunshine Law, which requires open public meetings, and exceptions to that law, which allow local governments to at times hold private "shade" meetings with their attorneys when they are sued.
Jim Anderson, a city resident active in the city's development wars, is suing the city, asking the Circuit Court to declare the city in violation of the Sunshine Law.
"The City Commission has a policy of hiding behind shade meetings because they don't want the public to know their views," said Anderson's attorney, Ken Weiss.
Weiss also represents other residents who are fighting the city in court over the comprehensive plan approved by voters in 2008.
City Attorney Mike Davis disputes Weiss' contention that the commission violates the Sunshine Law in its meetings with its attorneys.
"Mr. Weiss tried that argument last year, and he lost," Davis said Tuesday.
In that case, 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."
The judge did find that "most" of the shade meeting discussions involved discussions of legal settlements and litigation strategies. He also said the commission made "some decisions" related to settlement counterproposals that were contingent on approval in public meetings.
In Anderson's lawsuit against the city, Weiss argues that in subsequent shade meetings held in November and December, the commission discussed issues that were unrelated to pending lawsuits.
Instead, the lawsuit maintains the commission discussed ways to "reduce future litigation," including putting a charter amendment on the March ballot to repeal the need for voter approval to changes in height and density development regulations.
Anderson's wife, Brooke, recently formed a political action group, Protect Your Right to Vote On Height, to oppose the proposed charter amendment on the March ballot.
The earlier decision by Demers is being appealed.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal granted a request this month by the First Amendment Foundation to file a brief in support of the contention the city is violating the Sunshine Law.
The nonprofit foundation, founded in 1984 by the Florida Press Association, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and the Florida Association of Broadcasters, publishes the Sunshine Law and public records manual prepared by the Florida Attorney General's Office. It frequently enters cases involving the Sunshine Law.
City Manager Mike Bonfield stressed Tuesday that city attorneys were present during all of the commission's shade meetings.
"Our attorneys advised the commission on the conduct of meetings, and we are comfortable that we complied with the law," Bonfield said.