Historic City News reporters learned that yesterday, the Second District Court of Appeal issued a highly critical opinion of the City of St Petersburg Beach for refusing to release a copy of a public record documenting the discussion in a closed-door meeting attended by elected city officials.
Under the state’s open-government laws, public officials are allowed to hold a closed-door discussion, referred to as a “shade meeting”, to discuss pending litigation with their attorneys and strategies for the settlement of lawsuits.
Shade meetings are attended by a court reporter or designee of the city or county clerk, but those transcripts are only protected until after the litigation is finished — then, according to the Court, they must be made available.
Chester and Katherine Chmielewski filed a lawsuit against the city in 2006 that ended, about two years later, with the city agreeing that patrons of a nearby community center could not trespass on the couple’s property to gain beach access.
About a year after the settlement, the couple sued the city again because people continued to trespass on their property and police would not intervene. The couple sought a transcript of a shade meeting from the earlier lawsuit, but the city turned down the request. The city contended that the earlier settlement allowed mediation “if a dispute arose”; so, in their opinion, the case was not finished.
“The city cannot seriously contend that any member of the public could not have rightfully demanded the shade meeting transcript shortly after entry of the final judgment,” judges Edward LaRose, Chris Altenbernd and Marva Crenshaw, wrote.
“Apparently fearing some unarticulated maleficent use of the shade meeting transcript, the city urges secrecy,” the three-member panel wrote in their unanimous opinion. “But the Legislature has already drawn the boundary line; upon conclusion of a lawsuit, the shade meeting transcript becomes public.”