City ordered to disclose public record, found in violation of Sunshine Law

Vernon Council Photo available for purchase

Vernon Mayor Michelle Cook, standing, talks with council members Tina Sloan and Joey Brock, while member Gwen March visits with city attorney Kerry Adkison prior to a recent council meeting. The Vernon City Council was ordered on Sept. 28 to pay attorney fees and costs following a lawsuit over the Sunshine Law filed by the Washington County News.

File Photo
Published: Saturday, October 6, 2012 at 01:02 PM.

CHIPLEY — The city of Vernon will pay $3,900 in attorney fees and costs after a judge ruled the city council violated the state Sunshine Law by failing to follow the requirements of conducting a closed session and violated the Public Records Law by failing to produce for inspection a transcript of the closed session.

The decision came about after the Washington County News and its former parent company, Florida Freedom Newspapers, filed suit against the city of Vernon following an improperly held executive session of the city council on April 23.

“This order is a landmark case,” said attorney John Bussian, who represented the newspaper, its former owner and now Halifax Media Group. “No court in Florida had ruled that by not following the steps required by the Sunshine Law to hold an executive session meant the governmental body then had to disclose the contents of that session. Everybody had talked about that consequence but it had never been mandated by a court.”

The order authorizing award of attorney fees and costs was issued on Sept. 28 and awards the Washington County News $3,500 in attorney’s fees and $400 for costs. The city of Vernon has 30 days to pay the fees.

On April 23 at the city council meeting, the council’s new mayor, Michelle Cook, and council member Oscar Ward were to be briefed on pending litigation the city faced, so City Attorney Kerry Adkison called for an executive session following the regular council meeting.

Prior to the council going into executive session, Adkison said the panel would not come out following the session to reconvene and conclude the executive session, as required under Florida law.

On April 27, the Washington County News sent a Sunshine Law request for a transcript of the executive session to the mayor and to the city attorney, and the request for the transcript went unanswered. Eventually, the Washington County News filed suit against the city over the issue, and a hearing was held on June 26 in the 14th Judicial Circuit Court.

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