At a special meeting today, the City Commission approved a second settlement offer in response to an ongoing lawsuit that would acknowledge the city violated the state’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
The case, filed by the not-for-profit Sarasota-based corporation Citizens for Sunshine, alleges an Oct. 10 meeting held at a downtown restaurant violated the Sunshine Law. Two commissioners, Susan Chapman and Suzanne Atwell, were present at the meeting, as was City Manager Tom Barwin; the meeting was held by downtown businesses to discuss homelessness issues.
In the most recent settlement offer, approved by a 3-1 vote, the city would admit to violating the Sunshine Law. According to the offer, the law was violated because the city knew two or more commissioners would be present, and City Manager Tom Barwin accepted the meeting invitation with the intent “to build a coalition to support our homeless efforts,” a matter that was reasonably foreseeable to come before the commission in the future.
As a result, the city would acknowledge, the meeting should have been publically noticed at least 72 hours in advance, and minutes should have been taken and published. The city would pay Citizens for Sunshine’s legal fees if the group agrees to the settlement.
The original settlement offer from the city, which was approved last Friday, came with additional points the city explicitly would not be admitting to:
• That the commissioners had a direct or indirect discussion at the Oct. 10 meeting about a subject that was reasonably foreseeable to come before the commission.
• That the Sunshine Law is violated when two or more commissioners are present at a meeting that wasn’t publically noticed and at which subjects that could come before the commission were discussed, if only one or no commissioners actively participate in the discussion.
Before an agreement was drafted, Citizens for Sunshine attorney Andrea Mogensen informed City Attorney Robert Fournier those provisions were not acceptable to the group. Fournier said Citizens for Sunshine would be otherwise amenable to the agreement, but Mogensen felt the non-admissions were irrelevant to the settlement.
“By its very title, a Settlement Agreement should include only those things the parties do agree on,” Mogensen wrote in the email.
Today, Fournier asked the commission to determine whether they supported making the settlement offer with the non-admissions left out. Chapman, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, asked for the commission to hold off on any action until her legal counsel was present. Chapman’s attorney became unable to attend when the meeting time was shifted from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m earlier this week.
That appeal didn’t hold sway with a majority of the commission, with only Vice Mayor Willie Shaw voting to postpone a decision. The rest of the commission — including Atwell, who was originally named as a defendant but was dropped after reaching an individual settlement — supported submitting the agreement to Citizens for Sunshine. Chapman had to abstain from the vote due to a conflict of interest.
Under the proposed settlement details, Fournier said he didn’t feel an agreement would hurt Chapman’s legal case. Chapman, who could potentially be the last remaining defendant in this case and left on her own to cover any future legal fees, felt like she was hung out to dry by her fellow commissioners for political reasons.
“I will consult with my legal counsel,” Chapman said when asked what her next step was. “I still firmly believe that I did not violate the Sunshine Law.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected].