In a crucial victory for transparency, a Florida state appeals court ruled that the state's open meetings law will not "condone hiding behind federal mediation" when municipal governments try "to thwart the requirements of the Sunshine Law" by conducting labor negotiations during federal court litigation. With this action, the appellate court affirmed a lower court's order declaring a mediation settlement agreement – which contained substantial changes to pension benefits for police and fire employees – void because it was negotiated in violation of Florida's open meetings law.
The case, Brown v. Denton, arose in 2013 when the chief negotiators for the firefighters' and police officers' unions filed suit along with several other plaintiffs against the city of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund Board of Trustees, ostensibly to prevent any change to pension benefits, but in reality as a scheme to facilitate secret negotiations. Although the police and fire unions themselves were not parties to the federal case, they were invited to – and did – attend the mediation sessions, resulting in a mediation settlement agreement (MSA) with substantial changes to pension benefits for police and fire employees. After the MSA was signed, Mayor Alvin Brown held a press conference announcing an agreement on retirement reform with the unions.
Frank Denton – an editor at The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville's daily newspaper – filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the MSA on the grounds that the unions' negotiations with the city violated Florida's Sunshine Law, making the MSA void.
The trial court agreed, holding that the board acted as the unions' representative during the mediation sessions or that the unions themselves participated to some degree in negotiating the MSA. The trial court held that the federal mediation sessions violated the Sunshine Law, voided the MSA and enjoined "the parties from conducting further proceedings entailing collective bargaining of the police officer and firefighter pension funds in private outside of the sunshine." The trial court also held that the city and pension fund were required to inform the federal court of their obligations under the Sunshine Law, but if the federal court nonetheless ordered them to negotiate outside of the sunshine, the federal court's order would take precedence.
The city and board appealed. The First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's order holding that Florida's Sunshine Law was enacted to protect the public from "closed door" politics and should be construed so as to frustrate all evasive devices. The appellate court held that the trial court had jurisdiction, as "[c]onsidering and determining Sunshine Law violations are within the circuit court's purview." Moreover, the court held that interpretations regarding collective bargaining were necessary threshold determinations in the context of whether the mediation sessions triggered application of the Sunshine Law and were entirely proper.
The appellate court also affirmed the trial court's finding that the board acted as the unions' bargaining agent during the mediation sessions as "a proper finding." It agreed that "the fact that [the] Board had not been formally designated as the unions' bargaining agent did not necessarily mean that it did not function as a representative of the unions so as to qualify as a 'bargaining agent' for purposes of Sunshine Law application." It also held that the trial court "narrowly crafted its remedy to respect the interplay between Sunshine Law principles and federal mediation."
The First District Court of Appeal concluded its opinion with a strong statement in favor of Florida's Sunshine Law: "By holding closed-door negotiations that resulted in changes to public employees' pension benefits, the appellants ignored an important party who also had the right to be in the room – the public." By separate order, the court awarded Denton his appellate attorney's fees.