Like many cities, Jacksonville, Fla., is struggling to fund public service pension plans without raising taxes.
It’s a common dilemma, said Frank Denton, editor of the Florida Times-Union, noting that pension costs from California to Rhode Island are outpacing tax revenues.
But when Mayor Alvin Brown and his administration unveiled a police and fire pension proposal on May 8 to save Jacksonville about $1.1 billion during the next 30 years, Denton was skeptical—not only because the bulk of the savings won’t kick in for another decade, but because the plan, worth millions of taxpayer dollars, was devised in private meetings out of town.
On June 6, Denton filed a lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville for sidestepping Florida’s open-meetings laws and excluding citizens from a high-stakes decision before it goes to the city council.
“I think the people feel like this is sweeping over them,” Denton said. “They really appreciate our standing up for public involvement.”
Regardless of what citizens think about the pension plan, Denton is calling them to stand against private government mediation and demand the plan return to the table for public discussion.
Months before the pension plan surfaced in May, the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund were allegedly at odds in heated public meetings about pension reforms.
But the meetings stalled when the head of the firefighters union sued the city and the pension fund in federal court on Feb. 4, claiming both parties violated the union’s civil and property rights by breaching a Pension Fund Contract, according to the 80-page lawsuit.
At first, the city filed a motion saying the federal court did not have jurisdiction over the case because it was a local issue.
But before the court could rule, all three parties came together on March 22, saying they could resolve the issue themselves in a private mediation.
The city has not commented on whether a federal judge looked at the case or whether it was routinely approved. But Rod Sullivan, an associate professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law and a state Sunshine Act expert, suspects that if a federal judge saw the case, the mediation conference would have been open to the public.
Instead, the three opposed groups went into private meetings in Gainesville, Fla., to work out the issue.
That’s where trouble ensued, Denton said. While they were in private meetings, the parties negotiated larger issues, including a new pension plan.
“Nobody knew it was going on,” Denton said.
So when Brown announced the plan in May, Denton said the Times-Union immediately questioned him on its covert path to the city council.
“If you look at the legal steps that were taken, (the city) clearly knew what they were doing,” Denton said.
But representatives of the mayor’s administration maintain that there is nothing wrong with the pension plan or the private mediation, and they dismiss any allegations that public discourse was compromised.
“We’ve had numerous collective bargaining sessions,” said David DeCamp, the mayor’s communications director. “What has happened is we began public bargaining sessions, and the unions walked out of them and sued us.”
Even so, Sullivan thinks the lawsuit filed in February “was and is a sham” the city used to negotiate bigger issues behind closed doors.
“I think that the sole purpose of the lawsuit was not to vindicate the civil rights of the plaintiffs, but instead to try and permit the city and the union to engage in collective bargaining negotiations in secret in violation of the Sunshine Act,” Sullivan said in an email.
But in a statement issued after Denton filed suit, city attorney Michael Grogan called the paper’s case “off base and uninformed” legal fiction.
“Strangely, the Florida Times-Union never had a problem during the more than twenty-year period when past mayors and city councils approved settlement agreements related to police and fire pensions,” Grogan said in the statement. “So we are surprised and disappointed that the Times-Union is forcing the city to spend taxpayer dollars defending a case that has absolutely no basis or merit.”
In a letter on June 19, city attorneys called the Times-Union lawsuit “frivolous” and told the paper that if they wanted to take the city to court, they’d have to foot the legal fees.
It’s a “far-fetched” threat, said Sullivan, who maintains that even though the Pension Board and the city have negotiated without holding public meetings in the past, those previous negotiations were also subject to the Sunshine Act because the Pension Board was acting as a bargaining agent for the union.
“The mere fact that they have ‘gotten away with’ violating the Sunshine Act in the past does not justify continuing Sunshine Act violations when the prior violations are finally brought to the attention of the public,” Sullivan said.
He thinks Denton’s lawsuit points to a broader infringement of Floridians’ rights under the U.S. and state constitutions.
“We have a constitutional right under the U.S. Constitution to a ‘republican form of government,’ and we have a Florida constitutional right to have: ‘All meetings . . . . at which official acts are to be taken or at which public business of such body is to be transacted or discussed . . . . open and noticed to the public,’” Sullivan said. “This ‘mere discussion’ doctrine means that the negotiations should be open to the public, and when they are not, the rights of the citizens of the state of Florida are being violated.”
DeCamp, the city’s communications director, explained in an email that under Florida and federal law, mediation is confidential, and the tentative plan that came out of that mediation cannot take effect until it’s openly discussed, debated and approved by the Jacksonville City Council and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund. If either the council or the Fund does not approve the agreement, it returns to private mediation.
But Denton said that means it’s take it or leave it.
“And if you leave it, they go back into secret meetings,” Denton said. “It was set up secretly to have the maximum chance of just sailing through.”
The city council responded to the mayor’s administration in a six-page letter in mid-June, offering suggestions about how the pension plan should be reformed before it is approved.
Denton said the city has until July 5 to respond to his lawsuit.
“If a few government officials go out and hold secret meetings with private parties that are controlling the city budget with no public input, then we don’t need journalism, and we don’t need the public,” Denton said.
Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.