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First Amendment Foundation joins suit against St. Pete Beach concerning Sunshine Law

Published Jul. 5, 2013

ST. PETE BEACH — A lawsuit over the city's handling of its development rules, originally filed in Circuit Court, is now in the hands of the 2nd District Court of Appeal and could potentially go all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

The issue, which has drawn the involvement of the First Amendment Foundation, centers on whether the City Commission violated the state's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law during closed meetings with its lawyers in 2011.

Last April, Circuit Court Judge David Demers ruled both that the city had not committed such a violation and even if it had, those acts were "cured" by subsequent actions the commission took.

Last week, the foundation joined Jim Anderson, a resident who originally filed the lawsuit against the city, in an appeal of the circuit court ruling.

"The case is egregious," Jonathan Kaney Jr., attorney for the foundation, said Wednesday. "They (the City Commission) used the state law's litigation exemption as a way to deal with a combination of political, legal and financial issues."

The Sunshine Law requires governments and agencies at both the state and local levels to conduct business in public session.

One major exemption to that requirement allows closed-door or "shade" meetings for discussions on litigation settlement negotiations or strategy sessions regarding litigation expenses.

Anderson, and the foundation in its amicus curiae brief, argue that the St. Pete Beach commission discussed matters outside those permitted areas during shade meetings.

That contention was sharply denied by Susan Churuti, an attorney for the city. She said the city will submit a brief defending the city and the lower court ruling.

"The record includes minutes or more than 90 public discussions of the issues and the trial judge found all these cured any possible Sunshine Law violations," Churuti said.

Kaney disagrees and says the foundation is prepared to take the issue all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, if necessary.

"We want to knock down this abuse of the exemption, which if allowed to stand would be a terrible outcome and leave a gaping hole in the Sunshine Law. It would make the law toothless," he said.

The First Amendment Foundation was formed in 1984 with a mandate to protect and advance the public's constitutional right to open government. Its 200-plus members include most of Florida's daily newspapers and leading media organizations, attorneys, students, private citizens and public interest organizations.

Kaney argues that the St. Pete Beach case centers on the scope of the litigation exemption and at what point a violation can be "cured" or absolved.

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He maintains that some actions — particularly those taken by the St. Pete Beach commission — are "uncurable" and therefore expose the city and city commissioners to civil and criminal penalties, as well as costs incurred by Anderson for fees and costs of litigation.

Aside from the foundation's arguments relating to the Sunshine Law, Anderson's attorneys, Ken Weiss and Tim Weber, also are seeking to have the comprehensive plan completely thrown out, and the state law that permitted the plan to be put in place declared unconstitutional.

"The city has been using shade meetings to discuss matters that should be discussed in public. We claim that because they violated the Sunshine Law, the comprehensive plan is void," says Weiss.

Among the challenged actions taken by the commission during their shade meetings were discussions of a subsequently successful effort to seek passage of a special state law that would allow the city to implement a previously state-approved comprehensive plan without submitting the plan for repeated review.

Ironically, that is just what the city is now doing.

City Manager Mike Bonfield said the plan, which sets the rules for development in the city, is under review by state agencies, which are expected to submit their comments to the city this month.


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