Michael Barfield knows he’s not the most popular guy in many corners of the city.
Barfield, a paralegal who works with the nonprofit Citizens for Sunshine, has become the face of the organization best known in Sarasota for its litigious nature. Citizens and city officials alike have called him a political opportunist, a burden to taxpayers and an obstacle to functional government.
Despite the criticism, Barfield is unfazed.
“I’m an easy guy to hate for those in power,” Barfield said.
Since 2012, the city has spent approximately $715,000 in responses to open government complaints and record requests from Barfield and Citizens for Sunshine, according to information City Attorney Robert Fournier provided. That total includes $656,000 in expenses for lawsuits stemming from the state’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law or open records complaints.
Barfield, who describes himself as an “armchair constitutional scholar,” is passionate about the need for transparent government. He thinks the solution for relieving the burden of things such as Sunshine lawsuits is simple: Comply with the state’s open government laws.
“I think elected and appointed (city) officials do a terrible job of complying,” Barfield said. “It’s compliance that’s the problem. It’s not about the law being changed or being manipulated.”
The vast majority of the money spent on litigation was contained to cases the city settled or in which the government was found at fault. Still, several individuals — including Fournier — disagree with Barfield on that last point.
In response to a 2013 lawsuit filed against the city and commissioners Susan Chapman and Suzanne Atwell, Fournier stated he believed Citizens for Sunshine was pushing for a broader interpretation of the Sunshine Law.
Fournier said the basis for the suit against Chapman and Atwell was that, by attending a meeting that wasn’t publicized where people discussed a topic that could foreseeably come before the City Commission, the commissioners were violating the Sunshine Law — even if they were only listening to the discussion.
The city paid $17,679.05 to attorney Andrea Mogensen as part of a settlement of the lawsuit against the city itself, which Fournier said had some legal merit due to the participation of City Manager Tom Barwin in that discussion. The city has also paid $106,544.91 for its own legal fees for the case.
That number includes $84,836.21 for the defense of Chapman, who maintains she did not violate the Sunshine Law. The commission voted to end its payment of legal fees for Chapman after settling the case against the city, but the city could still be responsible for covering the cost of her defense if the court sides with her in the still-pending suit.
Since then, Chapman has been cautious regarding her attendance at meetings that aren’t noticed in advance and at which minutes aren’t being taken. She checks with Fournier to assure attendance at events such as Coalition of City Neighborhood Association meetings or the recent Manasota India Festival won’t lead to legal issues down the road.
Fournier said these inquiries usually aren’t too time consuming, although sometimes the situation is murkier. Recently, Fournier initially thought it would be OK for multiple commissioners to attend an Amaryllis Park Neighborhood Association meeting about community policing or a Sept. 23 Argus Foundation presentation about Mote Marine Aquarium and Laboratory.
He discovered that Barfield believed attendance at the neighborhood association would represent a violation of the Sunshine Law if it wasn’t noticed and minutes weren’t taken, because he thought the subject was something that could come before the commission in the future. When Mote CEO and President Michael Crosby announced he was seeking city approval for a bayfront aquarium, it became reasonably foreseeable that topic would come before the commission in the future, too.
Fournier reiterated that this is currently a legal gray area, with no definitive ruling from the courts. Still, he — and all of the lawyers who represented Chapman and Atwell in the 2013 suit — believes that Barfield’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. To avoid potential further expenditures, however, he feels obligated to inform commissioners of the risk they are taking by attending some meetings.
“I don’t think that is or should be a law,” Fournier said. “We have been put on notice that there are plaintiffs out there who do think it’s a law.”
Argus Foundation Executive Director Kerry Kirschner said he was disappointed by the approach the city was taking in response to the Sunshine Law concerns. A former city mayor, Kirschner said attending those types of meetings and gauging public opinion was essential to their job.
“How do you know what the public wants or what the public is interested in if you can’t attend outside events?” Kirschner said. “Who are you representing, and how are you representing them?”
Kirschner, like many other residents, believes Barfield is litigious because it’s a financially fruitful operation. If the city doesn’t take a stand against Barfield, Kirschner said, it’ll never be able to function optimally.
“This has become a business for Mr. Barfield,” Kirschner said. “He’s looking for any way that he can to threaten public bodies with lawsuits. Until those bodies stand up to this harassment, I think he continues.”
Barfield scoffed at the idea that his work was financially lucrative. He said he agreed that commissioners and other individuals subject to the Sunshine Law should be free to attend any meeting they want to — as long as it’s publically noticed in advance and minutes are taken.
“This is not an expansion of the law,” Barfield said. “This is and has been the law since the late ’60s. Operate in transparency, with notice.”
Some residents have worried that the requirement for taking minutes is too onerous. Barfield said that nothing too intricate or detailed is required — either they can record the meeting or they can list who was in attendance and what subjects were discussed.
Despite the vitriol often lobbed his way, Barfield believes he — along with Mogensen and the board of Citizens for Sunshine — serves as a watchdog for open government in the area.
“That’s the role we play, for better or for worse,” Barfield said. “I thoroughly enjoy that role.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Since 2012, here’s how litigation and records requests from Citizens for Sunshine and Michael Barfield have impacted the city of Sarasota:
total money the city has spent in response to Barfield/Citizens for Sunshine
10 - total number of lawsuits filed against the city
5 - number of cases settled
2 - number of lawsuits successfully defended