SARASOTA, Fla. - This week marks an annual celebration of government transparency, also known as Sunshine Week. But on the Suncoast, a Sarasota city commissioner is battling a lawsuit on that very issue.
A sunshine violation suit filed back in October against several city officials took center stage at Monday's commission meeting, with the city voting to not continue paying for Commissioner Susan Chapman's legal fees resulting from the case.
"We need to back up our elected officials; what happened last night is that the city commission did not," says Chapman about the commissioners’ decision to not act on a motion to continue paying her legal fees related to allegations that she violated the Sunshine Law by attending a meeting with downtown merchants. "There was no government decision-making at that meeting, there was no collusion, there was no evasion; we were listening to constituents.
But lawyer Andrea Mogensen disagrees. She's the attorney representing Citizens for Sunshine, the non-profit organization behind the lawsuit. "Two commissioners had met without notice to the public and without an opportunity for the public to participate basically in a closed door meeting."
According to court documents, back in October, Sarasota downtown merchants gathered at the Tsunami Restaurant to voice their frustration about the homeless issue. They invited multiple city officials.
Commisisoners Chapman and Atwell, the city manager, deputy city managers, and several Sarasota Police officers took them up on that offer.
"It's the attendance of the two commissioners, and ergo the responsibility of the city, that causes the responsibility to the public to notice the meeting in advance and to keep minutes so that all of the citizens of Sarasota and all of the constituents and anybody who wants to knows what the decision making is on this very, very important issue."
Atwell and the city settled their cases, but Chapman has continued to defend her decision to attend the meeting, saying there were no sunshine violations. "What was at issue here is elected officials being able to listen their constituents."