JACKSONVILLE – While 32 months isn't a long time in many lawsuits, it was a grinding pace for Times-Union Editor Frank Denton in his lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville and the Police and Fire Pension Fund for alleged Sunshine Law violation.
Denton finally prevailed in February when the Florida Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace’s 2013 ruling that the city and pension fund negotiated pension benefits behind closed doors. By then, the newspaper's lawsuit had survived multiple appeals and other legal challenges, so the Supreme Court’s one-sentence decision was an affirmation for the newspaper. It also left pension fund attorneys almost no options for appeal.
“This has been a long time in coming, but well worth the wait,” Denton said in a statement. “At every level now, the courts have resoundingly confirmed what the law clearly says: The public’s business must be done in the public eye. This is an expensive lesson for our public officials but, we hope, an enduring one.”
The ruling meant the city and pension fund had to pay the newspaper's attorney fees for the trial and appeals portions of the lawsuit. Jacksonville's bill came to $131,660 while the pension's portion came to $174,105, according to information provided by the newspaper's counsel to the city and pension fund.
The journey to the final ruling began in 2013 as Jacksonville was trying to reduce police and firefighter retirement costs. The city and pension fund tried to come to a benefit agreement during closed-door mediation sessions, seemingly oblivious to Florida's Sunshine Law. The law clearly states that collective-bargaining negotiations must be done in public.
For its part, the city of Jacksonville maintained the closed-door mediation sessions were court issues, not collective bargaining.
Denton filed suit and the case played out in court, and in the pages and online views of the newspaper.
"Our reporters spent months demanding and evaluating volumes of public records and interviewing officials and experts," Denton said. "One big headline that defined the investigative project was 'The $5 million cop,' showing how much one police officer would get in pension benefits over his lifetime. Another, about the pension fund’s lavishly paid executive director, said: 'His pension’s fully funded.' Another headline, 'Too much of a good thing?', was over a story detailing how three insiders manipulated the pension system to get another $2 million in benefits. By time we finished, our readers understood the Police and Fire Pension Fund, its abuses, and the challenge the city faced in creating reform. The Times-Union editorial page provided commentary and insight that fueled public discussion."
The first court ruling determined the city of Jacksonville and the pension fund had indeed violated the Sunshine Law. The city dropped its appeal in 2014 but the pension fund continued its side of the case in great hopes the Florida Supreme Court would hear its appeal. Those hopes ended with the high court's decision in February not to hear the case.
"For those us working at the Times-Union, it was a career-defining moment," Denton said. "We will forever be thankful that our owners, the Morris family, supported us without blinking, even though legal bills were stacking up, as the city and the Pension Fund battled us with what seemed like a never-ending supply of legal counsel."
The ruling came less than a year after Mayor Alvin Brown and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund Board of Trustees signed off on a new reform agreement. That agreement, approved June 19, 2015, following the city council's 14-4 vote, is expected to provide long-term savings to taxpayers and support the retirement plans of Jacksonville’s first responders.
“This is a big win for Jacksonville, not just on retirement reform but also for the city’s future prosperity,” Mayor Brown said in a press release issued the same day. “This agreement took a true team effort from various leaders across the city, all focused on what’s best for our community. I am proud that we were able to find meaningful compromise and agree on a plan that both protects taxpayers and respects police and fire employees.”