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Sunshine issues drag on for commissioners

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 13, 2014
In the wake of a 2013 lawsuit, City Commissioner Susan Chapman regularly seeks legal opinions on whether or not she is allowed to attend outside events in her capacity as an elected official.
In the wake of a 2013 lawsuit, City Commissioner Susan Chapman regularly seeks legal opinions on whether or not she is allowed to attend outside events in her capacity as an elected official.
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On Oct. 28 — four days before November’s Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations meeting — Vice Mayor Susan Chapman sent an email to City Attorney Robert Fournier to find out whether she was allowed to attend.

This type of message was not out of the ordinary for Chapman, who seeks a legal opinion regarding every event she plans to attend in her capacity as commissioner. Fournier is usually able to quickly establish whether it should be an issue, but the CCNA meeting was an exception.

Commissioner Suzanne Atwell also planned on attending the meeting, which was scheduled to include a presentation from Karin Murphy, director of the city’s Urban Design Studio. This ticked off two major boxes for the city: More than one commissioner was attending, and the meeting was likely to include a discussion that was reasonably foreseeable to come before the City Commission. As a result, the city needed to notice the meeting, and a staff member needed to take minutes.

This wasn’t always the city’s policy for meetings commissioners planned to attend. In October 2013, a lawsuit alleged Chapman and Atwell violated the state Government-in-the-Sunshine Law by attending, but not speaking during, a private meeting of downtown businesses regarding homelessness.

In the wake of the lawsuit — and in lieu of a decisive court interpretation — the city has played it safe, instituting the new standards for holding a meeting in the Sunshine. This has created its own issues: Initially, City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini did not have anyone in her office available to take minutes at the Saturday meeting, given the short notice.

As the question of whether the meeting could be held in the Sunshine hung in the balance, Chapman suggested Atwell should not be allowed to attend the meeting because she had settled her lawsuit. Eventually, a staff member was located, but the two-day conversation highlighted the issues still caused by last year’s Sunshine case.

“All community groups want as many commissioners to attend their meetings and listen to their issues as possible,” Chapman said. “They beg for us to attend. They are very frustrated.”

Sometimes, Chapman’s procedures can seem extreme, with City Attorney Robert Fournier assuring her that a ribbon cutting or a neighborhood picnic should not involve matters that are reasonably foreseeable to come before the City Commission. Still, her caution is not without reason.

Despite the fact that the city and Atwell settled their Sunshine suits — and the city declined to pay Chapman’s legal fees when she did not do the same — Fournier was of the opinion that Chapman’s presence at last October’s meeting did not constitute a violation of the Sunshine law.

Chapman’s lawsuit, filed by the nonprofit firm Citizens for Sunshine, is still ongoing. Chapman said two scheduled depositions had been moved in the past three weeks, and that she had no sense as to when some resolution might be reached.

On Oct. 29, Nadalini requested approval to use $50,424 to hire a full-time commission reporter — in part to help address issues when it comes to two or more commissioners attending a private meeting. Nadalini said it would also allow her to manage commission services and provide minutes more efficiently.

Commissioners asked whether there were other options for addressing the minutes issue, including potentially contracting the service out, seeking a group of volunteers or training existing staff to take minutes.

No decision was made, but there existed some concern about meeting minutes coming back to haunt the city in the form of a lawsuit again.

Chapman said multiple commissioners don’t plan on attending the same meetings often, but the mere possibility creates a regular issue. In her eyes, the opportunity to adequately address the problem may have passed.

“The city should never have settled on those terms,” Chapman said. “We’re the only place in the state that follows these terms. Now, it creates additional burdens for city staff, additional costs for the city and it burdens all of us in listening to constituents.”

 + Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Commissioner Suzanne Atwell.


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