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.
The order by District Court Judge Christopher Patterson setd a precedent in the 14th Judicial District, and it will be there for other districts and courts in the state to consider, Bussian said. “If there are any other cases of this magnitude, there is a good chance this case has blazed a trail for openness and compliance with the open meeting law.”
In the order to disclose, Judge Patterson ruled that “the council violated the Sunshine Law by failing to follow the requirements for conducting a closed session.” It also states “the council violated the Public Records law by failing to produce for inspection by the plaintiff the transcript or tape of the April 23 closed session.”
The city was ordered to produce a transcript or tape of the closed session. The tape produced by the city was inaudible, however, and no transcript of the executive session exists.
“This final judgment by Judge Patterson affirms public trust was violated through disregard of open meeting and public record laws meant to protect our citizens against government abuse,” said Washington County News Publisher Nicole Barefield. “Let this serve as a notice to all public officials that these actions will not be tolerated, and remind them of their responsibility to the publics they serve.
“We look forward to an atmosphere where government meetings are conducted in ‘sunshine’ and citizens' access to public records are readily obtained,” Barefield said.