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Sunshine Law case in judge's hands

Does Florida's Sunshine Law apply to Hernando County's Development Review Committee?

The county and Wal-Mart say no. The Coalition for Anti-Urban Sprawl and the Environment says yes.

Circuit Judge John W. Booth considered both sides Tuesday morning and said he will decide "as soon as possible" whether he'll throw out CAUSE's lawsuit seeking to stop construction of a new Wal-Mart Supercenter in Spring Hill.

Wal-Mart and the county on Tuesday asked the judge to dismiss the case filed by CAUSE. The suit alleges that the county violated the state's open records law, or Sunshine Law, by granting Wal-Mart development permits without allowing the public to attend development review meetings. CAUSE members tried to attend three such meetings earlier this year.

Wal-Mart argued that the committee is merely a fact-finding entity with no decisionmaking power and, thus, the committee can exclude the public.

"There is nothing that indicates the DRC as a whole made any formal action," said David Theriaque, a Tallahassee attorney who represents Wal-Mart and argued on behalf of the county during the hearing.

Although CAUSE attorney Ralf Brookes agreed that the development review committee doesn't make a final decision, he argued the committees' findings and meetings are a part of the government's decisionmaking process. For that reason, he said, they fall under the Sunshine Law.

"When a public official delegates fact-finding duties, those individuals stand in the shoes of the public official insofar as the Sunshine Law is concerned," Brookes said.

CAUSE scored a small victory Tuesday when the judge threw out Wal-Mart's request to stop CAUSE from participating as a plaintiff in the case.

Theriaque argued that CAUSE couldn't have suffered any harm as a corporate entity, because they incorporated in June, after the development review committee meetings had concluded.

Brookes argued that the group existed then, even if it hadn't incorporated. Also, he argued that the group had incorporated by the time it filed the lawsuit.

"It's my understanding that it is an absolute right for anybody at any time to file a violation of the Sunshine Law," said Booth.

Both CAUSE and the county said they were happy with their attorney's arguments and confident they made strong points.

"Unfortunately, now we're going to have to wait," said Arline Erdrich, a plaintiff with CAUSE.