Documents from closed desegregation meetings must be disclosed
FLORIDA–A state appellate court in Jacksonville in late February upheld The Florida Times Union’s right of access to desegregation proposals and documents created in the closed sessions of a county school board. The meetings were not exempt as “pending litigation” discussions because of the nature of the talks and the participants involved, the court ruled.
The Duval County School Board and its superintendent, Larry Zenke, had argued that “shade,” or closed, meetings held in January and February 1995 among school board members, staffers and a consultant were exempt from the public records and open meetings acts because of the need to discuss pending litigation.
The Times Union sued the school board shortly after the closed sessions took place, seeking transcripts from the meetings involving members of the school board, the board’s attorney and a consultant on desegregation issues.
The appeals court affirmed the decision of the Duval County Circuit Court in Jacksonville, which held that the “pending litigation” exemption to the state’s access laws, created in 1993, must be narrowly applied and was not applicable in this case.
The litigation exception permits “any governmental agency, its chief executive and attorney to meet in private” if the agency is involved in litigation and the attorney seeks advice on settlement negotiations or strategy, according to the appellate court. The amendment was not intended to permit “nondesignated personnel” to discuss settlement matters in private with the agency, the court ruled. The presence of administrative staff and outside consultants at the meetings, along with an apparent tentative agreement on the terms of a desegregation settlement, made the pending litigation exemption inapplicable. (School Bd. of Duval County v. Florida Publishing Co.; Media Counsel: George Gabel, Jacksonville)