Sunshine Under A Cloud
I would hope our local press and the government bodies sued by paralegal Michael Barfield and attorney Andrea Mogensen would give close scrutiny to the motivations behind the spate of Sunshine lawsuits that have hit our city and county government entities, as well as the possible changes in interpretation of the Sunshine Law statewide that can result from the most recent lawsuit against the City of Sarasota.
From Tampa Tribune – December 16, 1999: Before passing judgment on a participant in a scheme to smear the reputations of a federal judge and prosecutor, U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara stated he agreed Michael Barfield was responsible for the plot. “Wherever that man goes, trouble follows. He’s a con man’s con man, no question about it.” [For his involvement, Barfield was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury before a federal grand jury for concocting false accusations against Judge Lee P. Gagliardi and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen A. Haley.] Judge Lazzara continued: “Judge Gagliardi was an outstanding person and outstanding jurist. Kathleen Haley devoted her life to government. It doesn’t take much to imagine how painful it must be to have to labor under the cloud of suspicion day in and day out. What has been done to these people is unconscionable.”
Michael Barfield has served his prison time and paid his debt to society for this and previous crimes that resulted, in the 1980s, in a three-year prison term for forging checks and using stolen credit cards and an extension of that sentence to 12 years for forging checks and trying to leave the country. I would hope his motivations now, in 2013, are idealistic and do not involve financial gain or the political agendas of his friends.
I understand Attorney Fournier does not want the City to incur mounting legal fees for fighting the current Sunshine case. However, I don’t think the public understands the Barfield-Mogensen team has a no-lose business model. If a government entity loses a suit, or caves, they get paid attorney/paralegal fees. If they lose and are assessed legal costs, their clients, Citizens for Sunshine, have no money for reimbursement of costs and the government is stiffed. Would that all of us had that kind of guaranteed revenue stream.
Even better for the litigants, the ante has been upped in this most recent case. If the city does not pay legal fees of elected officials or advisory board members defending their reputations, only the wealthy will be able to participate as elected officials and advisory board members. Please note, if someone chooses to settle, it is not an indication of guilt, but that the person could not afford legal fees to clear their name or did not want the government to be charged for doing so.
The Sunshine Law was designed to prevent backroom deals in a corrupt good ol’ boy Florida political system. It must not be violated. However, I do not believe there was a violation in the meeting attended by Commissioners Suzanne Atwell, Susan Chapman and the City Manager as there was no discussion between the Commissioners and material presented by Mr. Tom Barwin was previously reported and in the public record.
I do not understand why our city is agreeing minutes would be required at any meeting attended by more than one elected official (or more than one advisory board member…the City has 22). The original Barfield-Mogensen settlement proposal requiring minutes be taken by the City Auditor and Clerk’s office was changed to require organizations sponsoring a meeting provide their own minutes. Robert’s Rules stipulate minutes that will be published must include names of speakers and summaries of what they have said. This is onerous, but Robert’s Rules goes on to say that if you’re going to publish your minutes, you need to have an assistant secretary and a stenographic reporter.” What organization, be it a small neighborhood association or a large business organization, will be able to comply?
This extended interpretation of the Sunshine Law would actually inhibit, and in some cases eliminate, citizen participation in government and our First Amendment rights, guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and reaffirmed by statutes of the State of Florida, for citizens to gather and petition their elected officials for redress of grievances. Would that Barfield-Mogensen realized that rather than defending the little guy, they are depriving him/her of First Amendment rights. This would be a case for the ACLU….if Mr. Barfield were not chair of its Legal Panel.
Gretchen Serrie is a 40-year city resident has served on several local government advisory boards