Appeals court: Pension talks violated Sunshine Law

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An appeals court Tuesday ruled that Jacksonville officials violated the state's Sunshine Law by holding closed-door mediation sessions to negotiate changes in a police and fire pension fund.

The 1st District Court of Appeal upheld a decision by Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace in a lawsuit filed last year by Florida Times-Union Editor Frank Denton.

The case stemmed from mediation sessions that were held after Randall Wyse, chief negotiator for the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters Local 122, and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund Board of Trustees, according to Tuesday's ruling. The mediation sessions led to a tentative agreement about changes in the pension system.

DOCUMENT: 1st District Court of Appeals ruling on pension negotiations

Denton filed a lawsuit contending that the mediation sessions amounted to collective-bargaining meetings that violated the Sunshine Law, which requires such meetings to be open to the public.

Wallace sided with Denton, and a three-judge panel of the appeals court agreed Tuesday.

"We cannot condone hiding behind federal mediation, whether intentionally or unintentionally, in an effort to thwart the requirements of the Sunshine Law,'' said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Clay Roberts and joined by judges Simone Marstiller and Ronald Swanson. "Caution should be taken to comply with the Sunshine Law, and compliance should be the default rather than the exception. … By holding closed-door negotiations that resulted in changes to public employee's pension benefits, the appellants (the city and pension fund board of trustees) ignored an important party who also had the right to be in the room --- the public."

The city still has not resolved the pension matter, and a marathon meeting is planned for Wednesday. The mayor is expected to address the issue.

The city is reviewing the recent ruling. There's no word if it plans to appeal it to the state Supreme Court.