It’s a cottage industry, exploiting technicalities in the state Government-in-the-Sunshine Law for profit, crippling the government’s ability to operate because of petty political agendas. It’s a legal specter, haunting the corridors of Sarasota City Hall.
Andrea Mogensen is familiar with the complaints levied against her work and her clients, and she’s unfazed. In her eyes, she’s not the bad guy — she’s helping David confront Goliath on a regular basis.
“It makes me feel good to come to work every day, knowing that the little guy has a chance if I help them out,” Mogensen said. “I’m proud to tell my kids what I do when I come home at night.”
In the city of Sarasota, Mogensen is best known for representing Citizens for Sunshine, a group that has repeatedly sued the city for Sunshine Law violations over the past two years. During open-to-the-public sections of City Commission meetings, several City Hall regulars have repeatedly admonished commissioners for not fighting the group more stringently, calling its suits politically motivated. City Attorney Robert Fournier believes the group distorts the intent of the Sunshine Law, with several commissioners and citizens echoing his comments.
Mogensen says her work is nothing more than keeping government accountable. She’s not making up the laws she’s citing, and because she’s paid on contingency, she isn’t interested in bringing forth meritless or frivolous lawsuits. The only extent to which her cases are personally motivated, she says, is that she’s passionate about her profession.
“I do have a personal passion for accountability of the government,” Mogensen said. “I think good governance involves being responsive to the public.”
Mogensen, 47, took a circuitous route to practicing law in Sarasota, both professionally and geographically. She set out to become a teacher, but switched career paths after she believed education didn’t offer enough room for advancement. Originally from Madison, Wis., she earned her law degree at the University of Wisconsin. She made her way to Florida via suburban Chicago and central Missouri, coming to the area without a job.
After trying a number of different areas of law, she eventually ended up as an assistant public defender in Sarasota. During her five years in that position, she often had clients interested in suing the government or the police when the courts acknowledged their rights had been violated. She found it was an unoccupied niche.
“It seemed to me there was a need that had to be filled,” Mogensen said. “It wasn’t so much that I wanted to make money at it, but it seemed sad that there was nobody to do it.”
Mogensen is primarily a criminal defense attorney. She estimates that roughly 30% of her work relates to open-government issues. That percentage has risen over the years as her work has received more media attention, and more citizens have reached out to her after learning about her work. Though she’s stationed in Sarasota, she said she’s worked on open government cases in seven or eight counties.
She’s been recognized by her peers, receiving the Florida First Amendment Foundation’s first Sunshine Litigation Award in 2009. The award is given to those who have “made a significant contribution to the cause of furthering open government through litigation.”
She knows she’s less popular among the city at large. She spends most her free time raising her two teenage daughters with her husband. Working up to 70 hours per week, she doesn’t have time for much else. Even if she did, she said her job would serve as an obstacle.
“If you have any ambition in the community — to be active in the black tie scene or to run for office — you cannot do this type of work and expect to be successful in that area,” Mogensen said.
Some of what’s said about her work bothers her. She says she’d be working for a big law firm if she were in it for the money, and that she cares little about the personalities involved in local politics. Still, she’s largely content to let the accusations and rumors swirl around her, for much of the city to loathe what she represents. All that matters is her own knowledge that what she’s doing is worthwhile.
“I’m just very much into my small circle of family and friends,” Mogensen said. “There’s so little time in life that I try to focus on what’s important to me, and that is my family and my work.”
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