Posts Tagged ‘lawsuit’


Florida Times-Union editor sues city for negotiating pension plan in private meetings out of town

FrankDenton

Frank Denton, editor of the Florida Times-Union, is suing the city of Jacksonville for violating the state’s Sunshine Act.
(photo provided by Frank Denton)

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 khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

Student journalists at Ohio university fight for access to records they once had

otterbein students

Evan Matsumoto, left, manages the Tan & Cardinal’s website. Lindsay Paulsen is the newspaper’s print production editor. (Photo provided by Hillary Warren)

Student reporters at Otterbein University in Ohio are fighting for access to campus police records.

It’s a battle Mark Goodman has seen play out many times as a former director of the Student Press Law Center, and he said it usually ends in favor of university police.

But Goodman said the dispute at Otterbein is different. In this case, students are fighting for records they once received. That’s one reason Otterbein’s newspaper, the Tan & Cardinal, is willing to try its luck in court.

“It’s not that students are suddenly asking for things they didn’t used to ask for; students are simply asking for the same type of reports they used to get,” said Hillary Warren, the paper’s adviser.

Police reports are important to the news staff because they publish a weekly crime log that alerts students about crimes on campus, according to former Tan & Cardinal editor Lindsey Hobbs.

She joined the staff in 2009 when police in the city of Westerville responded to serious crimes on Otterbein’s campus and managed the incident reports for those calls. Hobbs said Westerville police provided students with complete reports including the names and phone numbers of people involved, so student reporters could write full articles about important incidents.

But when Otterbein’s campus security force converted to an official police department in July 2011, they took charge of the reports previously handled by Westerville police, and Hobbs said that’s when reports started shrinking from packets to one-page responses.

“They would have a brief summary of the incident and maybe the dorm where it occurred, but no other information,” Hobbs said. “When there was disorderly conduct, we used to know every detail. Now we’re getting information like, ‘Student caught fighting other student at dorm.’”

The first year, police reports withered to two or three sentences. Then in fall of 2012, they stopped coming all together.

“(The police) suddenly said, ‘No more records at all,’” Hobbs said. “They told us, ‘We’re a private police force, so we don’t have to give you those records,’ and we were all pretty shocked.”

Although this year’s editor Lindsay Paulsen admits serious crimes are few and far between on Otterbein’s 3,000-student campus, she said the police’s privacy policy makes it difficult for reporters to investigate and analyze when these crimes occur.

“Otterbein is the type of place where a lot of times stuff is pretty mundane, but we don’t know what we don’t know,” Paulsen said.

Otterbein Chief of Police Larry Banaszak told the Westerville News & Public Opinion in February that police records were suddenly sealed because a representative from the Ohio Attorney General’s office told the police they were not subject to the Ohio Public Records Act at a training course that fall.

Otterbein sought a second opinion from Ohio lawyer John W. Herbert in March who agreed that the university is exempt because there is not enough “clear and convincing evidence” to prove their new police department is a “public office.”

According to the 2006 Ohio Supreme Court decision State ex rel. Oriana House, Inc. v. Montgomery, a public office: 1) performs a government function; 2) receives government funding: 3) has government involvement or regulation;  and 4) was created by the government, or created to avoid the requirements of the Public Records Act.

Herbert said since neither Otterbein nor the police department are publicly funded, and since the department is governed by Otterbein’s Board of Trustees (not a government agency), the Public Records Act does not apply.

But Warren and the Tan & Cardinal staff argue that since Otterbein police assumed the duties of the Westerville police on campus and exercise full police powers in the city of Westerville, they are the functional equivalent of the city police.

“We told them, ‘You are performing the duty of a public office,’” Hobbs said.

Goodman agrees with the staff, saying the university’s decision to withhold once-open records only makes it look like they have something to hide.

“This is information that everyone admits was public when incidents were handled by Westerville police,” Goodman said. “There’s no logical reason why Otterbein should choose to not release information whether they feel legally obligated or not.”

The university’s official policy on disclosure explains that they’re reluctant to give student reporters records about serious crimes on campus because the victims of those crimes, such as sexual assault, might not want their classmates to know.

“We value our student’s privacy and respect their wishes not to have their names publicized,” the statement said. “Victims of sexual assaults often feel embarrassed and traumatized and in many cases report being traumatized a second time when seeing their names in student media publications.”

Even so, the university maintains that campus police fulfill Clery Act requirements in these sensitive scenarios by issuing a text warning about crimes that pose a perceived threat and by reporting incidents in the university’s Clery Report.

But Tan & Cardinal reporters think these measures are not enough to keep the student body safe and informed.

“When campus police aren’t providing detailed accounts, it’s hard to know what serious crimes are evading student awareness,” said Tan & Cardinal news editor Katie Taggart.

As associate news editor last year, Taggart was responsible for contacting campus police to fill out a weekly crime log in the news section. She said she sent a student reporter to the police department every week for an incident report, and every week, the student returned empty handed.

The Tan & Cardinal is still seeking police records this summer, warning the university that if campus policy doesn’t change, they’re willing to sue. So far neither party has taken legal action.

“There seems to be very few concrete answers in all this, but knowing what you do have access to, what you don’t have access to and what the law says is important,” Paulsen said.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI DAILY DOSE: ESPN sues Ohio State, Kundra talks top transparency principles

ESPN suing Ohio State for records withholding

ESPN has sued The Ohio State University for withholding records regarding an NCAA investigation into its football program.

The suit, filed Monday, accuses the university of breaking state public records law, according to The Associated Press. ESPN wants the Ohio Supreme Court to force OSU to release the requested public records and cover court fees.

The university allegedly cited a federal student-records privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, that wasn’t applicable in this situation when it denied ESPN access to various records.

Requested records included emails between former Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel, who resigned in May, and a mentor to former OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor, according to the Columbus Post-Dispatch’s buckeyeXtra.com.

FERPA is designed to ensure student educational records remain confidential, but it is often misused to wrongfully keep records private. SPJ’s online Reporter’s Guide to FERPA has more information on dealing with records roadblocks and related issues.

Vivek Kundra lays out his key points on open government

Vivek Kundra, the Federal Chief Information Officer, testified before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Thursday on government transparency issues.

In his testimony, Kundra mentioned 10 key principles for transparency that he said would serve as helpful guidelines in assessing the federal government’s $3.7 trillion budget.

Kundra’s major points included the importance of using common data standards and ensuring equal access to data.

For more, read Kundra’s entire testimony. You can also see his 10 principles listed without the extra information in this Sunlight Foundation blog post.

Kundra plans to leave his government position in August for a Harvard University Fellowship.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).


 

FOI DAILY DOSE: Disciplined cops’ names withheld in Seattle, N.H. city’s lawsuits go public

Secret in Seattle

Despite dissension from the city government, the Seattle Police Department is keeping the names of officers who’ve faced disciplinary action secret.

A labor arbitrator demanded the names be withheld at the behest of the city’s police officers union.

The City of Seattle said it may pursue a court appeal of the decision. The case may depend on the Police Department’s legal responsibilities under Washington disclosure laws.

The department is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for its treatment of minorities and use of force.

It has also been criticized for being too secretive and has been disclosing more information on internal investigations in an attempt to shore up public trust.

Keeping the names of officers disciplined for misconduct, however, could throw a wrench in efforts to foster public faith in the Police Department.

N.H. town makes city lawsuits public

City officials in Danville, N.H., have decided to make town lawsuits easily accessible to the public.

Lawsuits both won and lost by the city are to be posted on the city website.

The city board voted unanimously to make the resolved lawsuits public.

In Danville this week, the open government tally so far is Transparency: 1, Secrecy: 0.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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