In December 2010, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sarasota County in a Sunshine in Government lawsuit filed by Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government and Citizens for Sunshine. The two citizens groups had filed the suit, saying county officials had circumvented Florida’s public meeting laws in pursuing an agreement to bring the Baltimore Orioles to town for spring training.
After that high court ruling, 12th Circuit Court Judge Robert B. Bennett, who had heard the case in Venice, awarded the county $19,611.74 in litigation costs incurred in defending itself in the lawsuit.
The citizens groups never have paid the money.
In response to a query several weeks ago from Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta about what had transpired with the settlement, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh reported last week to the full board that Deputy County Attorney Rick Elbrecht had made discovery requests and submitted interrogatories to the citizens groups, “and today we have not found that there are any assets that can be levied.”
DeMarsh told the County Commission during its regular meeting Jan. 10 in Venice that he and Elbrecht “can continue to determine whether there are assets of these two corporations.”
Cathy Antunes, president of SCRG, said during an interview last week that DeMarsh’s report was correct: The two citizens groups do not have sufficient assets to pay the settlement.
Antunes provided a copy to The Observer of the 990 form SCRG had filed in April 2011 with the Internal Revenue Service. That form says the organization had net assets of $140.06.
All nonprofit organizations are required by law to file a 990 form each year.
When Barbetta had asked DeMarsh Jan. 10, whether he and Elbrecht had been able to obtain a copy of the group’s most recent 990, DeMarsh said he was awaiting the document.
Antunes told The Observer she had forwarded a copy of the 990 form to county officials.
“I don’t know of any other government in Florida that has ever asked for costs after a Sunshine Law violation case,” Antunes said in an email. “Typically, you don’t punish the public for wanting to know what’s going on.”
She added, “In the motion for costs, the judge has stated it was a legitimate case and not a frivolous one. It certainly wasn’t frivolous. What’s troubling is, if we speak out, it’s a response to criticism … It’s unfortunate one commissioner (Barbetta) is going after us for these costs, which we will never be able to pay for, any time we ask questions.”
Antunes said she had discussed with other community leaders the county’s motion seeking costs in the 2010 lawsuit; they had agreed with her that it was unusual.
After DeMarsh offered his Jan. 10 report, Barbetta said, “I have no problem with the freedom of speech.” However, he said he objected to the group’s continuing to send out critical emails, with misinformation, while it still owed the county money.
Federal form shows finances
A 990 form, which nonprofit organizations must file every year with the Internal Revenue Service, showed Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government had net assets of $140.06 as of April 15.
The form says the organization, whose principal officer is Cathy Antunes of Sarasota, had contributions and grants of $415 in 2009.
It received $7,140.38 in contributions and grants in 2010.
The organization’s expenses totaled $7,215.13 that year, the form says.
Antunes said in an interview that $6,000 of the funds the organization had received was in the form of a grant from the Knight Foundation, which had provided the money to help SCRG in its 2010 Government in the Sunshine lawsuit against Sarasota County.
The form says SCRG has three voting members and 20 volunteers. It does not have any employees, according to the form. Pat Rounds and Jim Lampl both are listed as board members, while Alex Morris is listed as the treasurer.
Antunes noted on the form that the groups “Promote transparency and sunshine in local government.”