City admits violating Sunshine law, pays newspaper $15,900
FLORIDA–In an admission that could have sweeping implications for state agencies, the Martin County Commission conceded that it violated the state Sunshine Law when it resolved a number of legal disputes and approved more than $4 million in settlements behind closed doors.
The late-March admission was made as part of an agreement ending a month-old lawsuit filed by the Palm Beach Post with the trial court in Stuart. The agreement also prohibits the commission from settling any future cases in private and requires it to pay the Post $15,900 for legal fees.
Since 1993, the commission settled nine lawsuits in private, accepting $300,000 and paying more than $4 million in settlements. In one case, the commission reduced a resident’s water and sewer bill by $50,000. Contrary to the Sunshine Law, the commission settled these cases without conducting public hearings, receiving residents’ comments or taking public votes.
County attorney Robert Guthrey told the Post “we are acknowledging the violation of the Sunshine Law … but we are indicating that it was not wilful and inadvertent.”
The Florida Sunshine Law provides that elected officials may meet in private to discuss legal strategies or settlements. However, the law requires that all final determinations be made in public. Under the agreement, the commission must now conduct “full, open, public hearings” on each case settled in violation of the law and must make transcripts of closed-door meetings available to the public.
Guthrey said that this settlement “would serve to provide guidance to local governments throughout the state” in conducting open meetings in accordance with the law. (The Palm Beach Post v. Martin County Commission; Media Counsel: J. Martin Reeder, Miami)