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Groups feel burn of Sunshine

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  • | 5:00 a.m. December 5, 2013
  • Sarasota
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As a recent Government-in-the-Sunshine lawsuit against City Commissioner Susan Chapman continues, several city residents wonder about the impact the case will have on neighborhood associations.

The lawsuit, filed against the city, Chapman and Commissioner Suzanne Atwell, stems from a meeting held in October by downtown businesses regarding homelessness issues. City Attorney Robert Fournier said the plaintiff, nonprofit group Citizens for Sunshine, is arguing that the presence of two commissioners at a meeting that wasn’t publicly noticed and involving business that could come before the City Commission constitutes a Sunshine Law violation.

If that interpretation of the Sunshine Law were enforced — which Fournier said is debatable — neighborhood groups and organizations such as the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations could lose their ability to interact with public officials concerning important issues.

Laurel Park Neighborhood Association President Kate Lowman spoke at the Nov. 18 City Commission meeting. She urged the city to fund Chapman’s defense until a ruling on the case was made. Lowman believes the incident in question doesn’t violate the spirit of the Sunshine Law, and that the city should work to clear up any gray area in the law for the benefit of its citizens.

“I think it’s a really major issue,” Lowman said. “The great thing about local government is that you have interaction of citizens and city workers and local officials, and I’m scared it’s getting cut off.”

Lowman responded to the risk-reward argument made by commissioners who were reluctant to commit the money to fully fund Chapman’s defense. She argued that several citizens were willing to devote their tax dollars to seeing the case through.

“I understand being judicious with your money, but I think there comes a time where principle and long-term costs have to be considered,” Lowman said.

Bob Easterle, chairman of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations, said restricting multiple commissioners from attending meetings was as big a disservice to officials as it is to the citizens. Easterle said CCNA brings together an expansive set of views, which was an important tool to help commissioners make informed decisions.

“To not hear those diverse views is a disservice to the commissioners and a disservice to the neighborhoods who go to these meetings to weigh in on city issues,” Easterle said. “I think it’s a lose-lose.”

Despite the negative effects, he said he thought commissioners would avoid attending CCNA meetings until the Sunshine issue was clarified.

“No commissioner wants to put himself in perceived harm’s way,” Easterle said.

The city admitted to violating the Sunshine Law in a settlement, but specified circumstances that created a violation beyond the presence of the two commissioners. Fournier said he believes two or more commissioners can attend a meeting without public notice if no more than one commissioner speaks, and as long as that commissioner doesn’t speak directly to the other commissioner.

Still, the city is playing it safe by noticing all meetings pertaining to potential future commission business that two or more commissioners attend, in addition to taking official minutes. Easterle said organizations such as CCNA should not be burdened with the responsibility of taking minutes, and the city has expressed a reluctance to spend money on sending official minutes-takers to significantly more meetings.

As a result, few meetings have seen more than one commissioner attend.

At its next meeting, Fournier intends to discuss the city’s policy regarding how to handle meetings of that nature. Events such as Tiger Bay and CCNA, which multiple city and county commissioners regularly attend, have been held without legal action despite a lack of advance public notice or minutes.

Easterle encouraged the city to put guidelines in place as soon as possible so that his group and others can once again feel comfortable inviting all of the commissioners to attend.

“If we can set up a process or procedure for the city dealing with events like CCNA, then we can comply or they can comply,” Easterle said. “We can (assist in) resolving the issue.”

Contact David Conway at [email protected]




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