JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown's administration along with the Police and Fire Pension board violated Florida's Sunshine Law by allegedly conducting collective bargaining negotiations in private meetings, according to the Florida Times-Union. The Times-Union filed a lawsuit Thursday in Duval County Circuit Court.
On May 8, Brown announced a new pension reform deal that will save taxpayers nearly $1.1 billion over the next 30 years.
The city and unions ironed out the deal in private during mediation stemming from a federal lawsuit to determine whether the city should negotiate benefits with the unions or the pension fund, the Times-Union said.
The agreement reached between the parties allegedly took place in the privacy of mediation and skipped the original issue brought before the court. Instead, it offered a fully negotiated pension settlement.
The Times-Union's lawsuit asserts that using the federal court mediation violated Florida Sunshine laws because the collective bargaining must be open to the public.
The lawsuit, filed by attorney George Gabel of Holland & Knight, asks the court to void the agreement and prevent the city from implementing it. The lawsuit also asks for the city and pension fund to pay attorney fees and costs.
The Times-Union reported that General Counsel Cindy Laquidara's assistant said the office doesn't comment on ongoing litigation. Pension fund head John Keane could not be reached for comment.
Times-Union editor Frank Denton is actually the plaintiff in the lawsuit because a Sunshine violation must be challenged by a resident of the state. The Times-Union's parent company is based in Georgia.
Last month, City Council members voted to hire their own legal counsel to help them sort through the specifics of the pension agreement, reported the Times-Union.
"We at the Times-Union were surprised and disappointed to see that the Mayor's Office had worked secretly with the pension fund and the unions, in the guise of mediation in federal court, to come up with a pension proposal," Times-Union editor Frank Denton said.
"This is important, involving hundreds of millions of dollars and the pensions of our first responders, and the public has a right to watch and be involved. Florida law requires it, and this was a carefully organized ruse to get around that law."
Attorney Michael Grogan of Allen Norton & Blue, representing the City of Jacksonville said, "In more than thirty-five years as a labor attorney, handling hundreds of cases involving public employees, I have rarely seen a lawsuit as off base and uninformed as what the Florida Times-Union filed today. This case is legal fiction, pure and simple.
"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. 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."