United States: The Florida Times-Union Prevails In Pension Talks That Were Determined To Be In Violation Of Florida Sunshine Law

George Gabel, Jr, Timothy Conner and Jennifer Mansfield are Partners in the Jacksonville office

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Jacksonville policemen and firefighters along with union representatives filed suit in federal court to protect a 30-year agreement previously made between the city of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund Board of Trustees.
  • A suit was filed on behalf of The Florida Times-Union in state court based on the Florida Sunshine Law asking the judge to nullify the agreement and require the city, unions and pension fund to negotiate any new plan in full public view. The judge's decision was made in favor of the Times-Union and it has national implications for states with Sunshine Laws similar to those in Florida.

Suit Asked Judge to Nullify Agreement Made in Secret Negotiations

After the city of Jacksonville demanded the police and fire unions collectively bargain pension benefits, Jacksonville policemen and firefighters along with union representatives filed suit in federal court to protect a 30-year agreement previously made between the city of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund Board of Trustees ("pension fund"). Shortly after the suit was filed the parties moved the federal court for appointment of a mediator. After the order was entered appointing the mediator, the parties negotiated in secret and reached an agreement for a comprehensive new pension plan, which lowered benefits for new hires, but not for veterans and retirees — an important public policy shift. A suit was filed on behalf of The Florida Times-Union in state court based on the Florida Sunshine Law asking the judge to nullify the agreement and require the city, unions and pension fund to negotiate any new plan in full public view.

Judge's Order Requires Compliance with Florida's Sunshine Law

For years the pension fund has negotiated directly with the city of Jacksonville for pension benefits for the city's firefighters and policemen. The pension fund took the position in the lawsuit that it is not a bargaining unit or agent of the police or firefighter unions and that, in any event, the unions waived their right to collective bargaining in favor of the pension benefits granted to the employees under the 30-year agreement.

In a summary judgment issued on Dec. 31, 2013, Circuit Court Judge Waddell Wallace held (1) the mediation settlement agreement is void ab initio; and(2) the city and pension board are enjoined from meeting with representatives of the unions to negotiate pension benefits without complying with the Sunshine Law, including any future mediation conferences held in federal court civil action or any other civil action subsequently filed. Judge Wallace also reserved jurisdiction to determine attorneys' fees and costs.

The judge's order was based upon the conclusion that pension benefits are a mandatory subject of collective bargaining and that the pension fund was an agent for the unions in negotiating the benefits. He also noted that collective bargaining agreements are limited to three-year terms by Florida Statute.

Judge Wallace stated:

Evasive devices used to circumvent the dictates of the Sunshine Law are condemned and cannot be upheld. Thus, the Court finds that the federal mediation sessions were in violation of the Sunshine Law because they included negotiations over pension benefits contained in the Restated Agreement. As bodies subject to the Sunshine Law, the Pension Fund Board and City were required to conduct their negotiations in the public realm.

Future Implications of Court's Decision Are Broad Reaching

A Times-Union editorial on Jan. 1, 2014, said:

The year 2014 will be huge for the City of Jacksonville. Big decisions need to be made. If they aren't successful, the City's future will be in jeopardy. Like a family burdened by debt, the City of Jacksonville must deal with pension obligations that are stifling. Increasing pension costs are beginning to affect the City's quality of life, ranging from declining library services to decreasing numbers of police officers. The basic elements of an acceptable pension deal are understood. There must be shared sacrifice. Pension benefits must remain good enough to retain and attract quality police officers. And a partial solution is not good enough.

As a result of Judge Wallace's decision, all of the pension negotiations for public employees in Jacksonville will be conducted in public, and the federal court should not be available in Jacksonville — or any other cities in Florida — to evade the state's Sunshine Law. The same should be true in any other states with open government laws. The decision may also give the city's pension reform task force some grounds for relief from its current stifling pension obligations.

The Holland & Knight Media Team in Jacksonville, George Gabel Jr., Timothy Conner and Jennifer Mansfield, won a major victory for our client, The Florida Times-Union, opening up Jacksonville's municipal pension bargaining to public oversight. 

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