Walton County officials ante up for Sunshine Law violation

By David Hutton | Jan 9, 2017

DEFUNIAK SPRINGS, Fla. — The Walton County Board of County Commissioners has agreed to pay a $175,000 settlement award to a local activist in a Sunshine Law case.

According to Louis Svehla, public-information officer for Walton County, the county's circuit court ruled the county violated the Sunshine Law when the commission agreed outside a public meeting to hire counsel to assist a former county attorney.

“The counsel was hired. However, the contract between the counsel and the county attorney was never approved by the commission,” Svehla told The Florida Record. “The payments to the counsel were approved by the commission. However, the trial court ruled that the failure by the commission to approve the actual contract was a violation of the Sunshine Law.”

The ruling in favor of activist Suzanne Harris marked the third time she has won a Sunshine Law suit against the county since 2009, according to www.nwfldailynews.com Harris is a former member of the Walton County Planning Commission.

According to Svehla, the other two counts were either dismissed by the court or by the plaintiff.

“Because the plaintiff prevailed on one count regarding the Sunshine Law, under Florida law, she was entitled to have her attorney fees paid by the county,” he said. “The trial court entered an order on Dec. 28, 2015, granting the plaintiff’s entitlement to her attorney fees and costs.”

Svehla added that attorney Matt Gaetz, who represented Harris, told the court that after reviewing the file and then consulting with their expert, they would only be seeking $168,200 in attorney fees and $12,000 in court costs for a total of $180,200.

The county had been offering $170,000. Given the amount between the two numbers, the two attorneys asked for a recess and discussed a settlement between the two figures their experts would testify to regarding the fees.

“The attorneys for the county agreed that we would recommend to the Walton County Commission that Walton County pay $175,000 total as attorney fees and court costs to the plaintiff for attorney fees and court costs,” Svehla said.

Commissioners voted 3-1 during a Dec. 27 meeting to approve the payment, according to www.nwfldailynews.com. Commissioners Bill Chapman, Tony Anderson and Melanie Nipper backed making the payment, and Cecilia Jones cast the lone dissenting vote. Commissioner Sara Comander was absent from the meeting.

According to Don Dennis, a Santa Rosa Beach-area attorney with Jones Gaglio and Dennis, Sunshine Laws are created to give the public a right to know what its government is doing.

“Government officials at all levels of the state cannot conduct business without giving the public notice and a right to attend. There are limited exceptions,” Dennis told The Florida Record. “The public can also recover attorney fees in certain situations.”

Dennis said the laws protect citizens and create transparent government operations because most government entities have policies and procedures to comply with the Sunshine Laws.

“This encourages open government,” Dennis said. “But the potential of having to pay attorney’s fees is a strong incentive for most entities to abide by the laws.”

Dennis also said that going forward, Walton County can take steps to avoid Sunshine Law violations in the future, including proper training and education on compliance.

“Typically, after a county gets hit with a successful lawsuit, that entity errs on the side of compliance rather than risk additional lawsuits,” Dennis said. “It's always best to err on the side of being open and transparent. I doubt any citizen would criticize the county for sharing too much information.”

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