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City council settles Sunshine lawsuit over e-mail use

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  1. Freedom of Information
A 10-month-old lawsuit claiming that Venice, Fla. city officials violated the state's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law by using personal e-mail accounts to…

A 10-month-old lawsuit claiming that Venice, Fla. city officials violated the state’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law by using personal e-mail accounts to conduct official business ended last week with the council approving a settlement, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports.

Citizens for Sunshine, Inc., a Florida non-profit organization, through its president, Sarasota resident Anthony Lorenzo, said in the original complaint that four current city council members and four former city officials violated the state’s Sunshine Law.

The settlement, which the council approved 3 to 1, now leaves local taxpayers footing what could be a million-dollar legal tab, the Herald-Tribune said.  Prior to the settlement, a trial had been scheduled for Feb. 23.

According to updated city rules, Venice officials now must use government e-mail accounts for all city business, the newspaper said, noting that they must also save messages received on private e-mail accounts to their work accounts. 

The legal dispute also prompted the state-led Commission on Open Government Reform to recommend Sunshine Law updates specific to government officials’ use of private computers and e-mail addresses for official business. 

But such issues will "likely be a continuing problem," said Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation, who gets daily calls from citizens having difficulty accessing public records.  The state is "at a boiling point" when it comes to transparency in government e-mail, she said, and the application of the law is inconsistent within the state.

Nonetheless, Harper said the Venice lawsuit still stands as a victory for freedom of information advocates.

"Ultimately, it shows the power of an individual citizen who took an interest in this, decided something wasn’t right and pursued it," she said.