Times-Union sues mayor, city, fire and pension pension board

Newspaper ask agreement be thrown out, renegotiated in public

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The editor of the Florida Times-Union say he's surprised and disappointed that the city of Jacksonville illegally reached a pension reform deal for police and firefighters because it was negotiated behind closed doors. The newspaper has filed a lawsuit that claims the agreement was make in violation of Florida's open records law and should be thrown out

Mayor Alvin Brown announced early last month that the city and the police and fire unions and their pension board had reached an agreement that would save the city $1.2 billion over 30 years.

Although that agreement was a court settlement with the approval of a federal mediator, the newspaper claims it violates the state's "sunshine" law.

The paper says the deal should not have been negotiated as a settlement for another law suit, but debated in public. While the Times-Union is not questioning the merits of the agreement, the lawsuit asks the court to nullify the "mediation settlement" and have the process redone in a public forum.

"These negotiations, we did not even know where going on," said Times-Union Editor Frank Denton. "They were out of town, in Gainesville. They were having secret meetings under the guise of mediation of a federal lawsuit on a minor matter, and we think it was in violation of the state Sunshine law."

DOCUMENT: Times-Union vs. Mayor Alvin Brown, city, Police & Fire Pension Board
UNCUT: Interview with T-U Editor Frank Denton

The mayor and other city staff aren't answering questions about the lawsuit. An attorney they hired issued this statement:

"In more than 35 years as a labor attorney handling, hundreds of cases involving public employees, I have rarely seen a lawsuit as off base and uninformed as that the Florida Times-Union filed. This case is legal fiction pure and simple."

"We are surprised and disappointed that the Times Union is forcing the city to spend taxpayers dollars defending a case that has absolutely no basis or merit."

An attorney at the Florida Coastal School of Law who specializes in open records and the Sunshine law says the newspaper's lawsuit is well founded.

"The city did violate the collective bargaining practice by doing these in private," said Rod Sullivan. "I think the entire process of file, the civil rights complaint in federal court, is a sham."

The Times-Union's suit is also asking attorney fees and cost be reimbursed. The editor isn't saying the pension deal is not good for all parties -- including the taxpayers -- but that it needed to be done in public so people can decide for themselves.

Jacksonville's City Council has not yet approved the deal, and some council members want to hire an attorney independent of the city to review it before ratifying the agreement.

No hearing date for the lawsuit has been set.

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