Judge Sides with Newspaper in Fla. Sunshine Law Case
MIAMI -- A judge has sided with The Florida Times-Union in a lawsuit arguing that Jacksonville city officials broke Florida's open-government laws when they held private talks over proposed changes to police and firefighter pensions.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace said the talks held from March through May were subject to the state's Sunshine Law and should have been public. The ruling blocks the city from continuing private talks.
At a May 8 news conference, Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown announced that a new pension agreement had been reached with the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund Board of Trustees.
"Our first question was, wait a minute, when did you negotiate this?" Times-Union Editor Frank Denton said Thursday.
Denton sued Brown, the city and the pension fund board for violating the Sunshine Law. According to Wallace's ruling, the defendants argued that the pension talks were not subject to the Sunshine Law because they were part of a mediation process ordered in a federal court civil action filed against the city by the firefighters' union president.
Wallace found that the federal mediation sessions amounted to collective bargaining between the city and the board, which was "undoubtedly acting as a representative of the unions."
"As bodies subject to the Sunshine Law, the Pension Fund Board and City were required to conduct their negotiations in the public realm," Wallace wrote.
If Wallace had ruled against the Times-Union, Florida cities could have used the federal courts or entities such as the pension fund board to evade the Sunshine Law, said Denton's attorney, George Gabel.
Wallace also ruled that if the federal court orders them to negotiate privately, they must inform the court about his injunction and the Sunshine Law.
Mayor's office spokeswoman Aleizha Batson said in an email: "While we will review the ruling and discuss next steps with the Office of General Counsel, Mayor Brown is focused on resolving the City's pension challenges. He will continue to work closely with Chairman Bill Scheu, the Jacksonville Retirement Task Force and City Council to achieve a comprehensive retirement reform solution for taxpayers and city employees."
While the Jacksonville City Council rejected the pension agreement in July, the public has a right to know about the proceedings that led to a proposed 30-year labor agreement involving millions of dollars, Denton said.
"Any time there's labor negotiations, there's give and take, and the public has a right and a need to see what the gives and takes are," Denton said. "We have the right to be in there and cover it and tell the public what's going on. This was a secret deal worked out in secret."
Pension costs have surged in Jacksonville, and Brown has separately convened a task force that has worked in public meetings on proposed changes to the pension agreement.
The newspaper is owned by Morris Publishing Group, based in Augusta, Ga.