Appeals Court Sides With Chapman



Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman enjoyed a win in court this week, though it came a couple weeks after she lost a a bid for re-election. A district court on Wednesday affirmed a ruling that determined Chapman did not violate the Sunshine Law in 2013 when she attended an unadvertised meeting where a fellow city commissioner was present. Citizens for Sunshine, the plaintiff that brought suit against Chapman, requested a written rationale for the decision and may still appeal the issue all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, but right now Chapman says she feels vindicated. 

“The court followed the law as it has been for 40 years,” Chapman says. “You can listen to your constituents as long as you don’t deliberate with each other. That’s what I did, and I was following the law.” 

The decision came after more than three years of legal wrangling. A lawsuit against Chapman stems back to 2013, when she City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell were invited to a meeting at Tsunami where merchants discussed their concerns about how the city should handle homelessness downtown. Upon learning of this meeting, Citizens sued the city and each commissioner. The city and Atwell settled out of court. Chapman maintained she did not deliberate on the issue and thus had not violated the law. 

A judge in 2016 criticized the decision to attend the meeting but ruled Chapman was not guilty of violating the Sunshine Law. Citizens for Sunshine appealed that ruling, saying the facts of the case showed Chapman violated the law, which forbids commissioners on the same government board to communicate about city business outside of public channels. Michael Barfield, a legal aide working on the case for Citizens, says plaintiffs will ask for a written opinion explaining the decision on Wednesday. “The main reason why,” says Barfield, “is that the issue of whether these kinds of meeting are subject to the Sunshine law remains unresolved. This issue is important to both parties.” The plaintiffs would like to review the ruling, and could still appeal this case further. “A decision isn’t final by any stretch at this point in time,” Barfield says. 

But Chapman says the decision and the fact it was made just two weeks after oral arguments were presented validates that she adhered to the law and shows a case brought by Citizens for Sunshine was politically motivated and frivolous. “It does mean something,” she says of the decision.

Chapman was elected to the city commission in 2013, months before the Tsunami meeting. She ran for re-election in March but placed fourth in a field of eight candidates, failing to make a runoff scheduled in May. She says the Sunshine lawsuit played a significant role in hurting her political performance.

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