A judge ruled today there was no evidence Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman violated the Sunshine Law during a meeting with merchants in 2013 where fellow Commissioner Suzanne Attwell was also present. Citizens For Sunshine, the watchdog group that brought a suit against the commissioner, voted Friday to appeal that judgment to the Second District Court of Appeals in Lakeland.

Chapman said the ordeal brings a close to an emotionally challenging period of her service. “I’ve had to pay with my peace of mind, with my being pilloried, with being demonized, with being dehumanized for three years almost,” she said. 

The judgment from Circuit Court Judge Brian Iten did criticize Chapman’s decision to appear at the merchant meeting “with full knowledge that another commissioner would be in attendance.” “Those entrusted to hold public office should always endeavor to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” Iten wrote. But citing contrasting judgements in other cases in Florida, the judge found that plaintiffs could not prove a violation of the law occurred.

But Andrea Flynn Mogensen, attorney for Citizens for Sunshine, said the judgment left plenty of room for appeal. She was surprised that Iten’s finding of fact said Chapman knew Attwell would be in attendance, that handling the homeless issue would be discussed and that the issue would soon come before the commission. “That really is the definition of a Sunshine Law violation,” she said.

The case before Iten is not completely closed, and there will still be questions about court fees and whether the suit against Chapman was brought in good faith.

Citizens originally also brought action against the City of Sarasota regarding failure to notice and against Atwell for violating Sunshine. Atwell and the city settled out of court.