NFOIC FOI Fund helps settle open meetings lawsuit in Florida
September 10, 2015
Florida’s Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court in Hillsborough County ruled in favor of a retired Tampa firefighter who was kept out of a 2012 pension board meeting. The Board of Trustees of the City Pension Fund for Firefighters and Police Officers in the City of Tampa kept Dennis Ribaya out of the monthly pension board meeting with a “no trespass order.” According to the court filing, the Pension Board falsely accused him of “disrupting” a June meeting for saying an expletive.
Mr. Ribaya sued the pension fund board stating they violated Florida’s Sunshine Law governing open meetings. To help with litigation costs, Mr. Ribaya applied for and received an FOI grant from the National Freedom of information Coalition (NFOIC). NFOIC offers litigation grants to qualified applicants to pursue important open government cases. The fund is made possible through a generous donation from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to NFOIC, the fund’s administrator.
“The Florida Sunshine laws require meetings, like this pension board meeting, to be open to the public,” said Barbara Petersen, president of NFOIC. “This right is given to all members of the public and needs to be protected,” she added. (Petersen is also president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.)
According to Ribaya’s attorney David Snyder, this case is significant because “the trial court’s ruling means that any public agency can exclude, without reason any individual—activists, lobbyists, journalists—from its meetings with a trespass warning and not violate the Sunshine Law or have to worry about the validity of official acts taken during the exclusion.” He added, “The unfortunate part of this case is that it cost taxpayers more than $300,000 before these public officials would accept that they could not willy-nilly exclude a member of the public from their meeting based on false accusations of disruption.”
NFOIC’s FOI fund is aimed at covering the costs of bringing litigation, which would include up-front costs such as court costs, filing fees, depositions and related expenses. Recipients are expected to reimburse the fund for at least the full value of the grant when they are able to recover those costs as part of the resolution of the case for which grant funding was used.
Applicants may include individuals, organizations (including NFOIC member organizations), journalists, attorneys, news organizations, or any citizen needing support for a meritorious open government case. Applications submitted either directly to NFOIC or through a state FOI group will be forwarded to the NFOIC Litigation Committee. This year, NFOIC has received seven (7) grant applications.