GRAND JURY REPORT; No Crime, but Errors Plentiful Jacksonville's City Council Is Chastised for Its Many Mistakes

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Byline: BETH KORMANIK and MARY KELLI PALKA

The Jacksonville City Council violated aspects of Florida's open meetings laws, but a Duval County grand jury concluded in a report unsealed Monday that there was no criminal wrongdoing.

The grand jury also criticized no-bid contracts improperly awarded to companies owned by Mayor John Peyton's friends -- but again found nothing illegal.

The report followed a seven-month investigation into the City Council's compliance with the state's open-government laws following a Times-Union investigation that documented dozens of undocumented meetings between council members where public business was discussed. The report also examined the city's contracting process after the Times-Union exposed deals that violated the city's procurement code.

The controversies contributed to the grand jury's finding that "Jacksonville's residents have rarely felt as disengaged and disenchanted with their local government officials as they do today" and railed against the perception of lobbyists' influence over government officials.

The panel also said the role of the city General Counsel's Office is unclear in enforcing compliance with open meetings law and entering into ethical contracts.

State Attorney Harry Shorstein said he won't pursue non-criminal violations of the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law because, as the report states, a new local law ensuring compliance and the publicity surrounding the investigation would keep council members in line.

"The grand jury was more concerned with effecting changes rather than suggesting or imposing punishments," Shorstein said.

Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, praised the grand jury for pursuing an investigation but said the community might wonder whether the Sunshine Law has any teeth.

"A technical violation is still a violation," she said, "and that's why enforcement is still an issue here."

In sworn testimony, all former and current council members denied violating the law, even unintentionally.

Grand jurors were skeptical of those claims and noted "this absence of candor is especially disconcerting because it is belied by common sense."

The Sunshine Law requires advance notice of meetings about public business between two or more members of a public board or commission and that they be held in the open, with only limited exceptions. A written account of the proceedings also is required. Violations can be intentional or unintentional and bring up to 60 days in jail or fines of up to $500. In the most egregious examples, officials face suspension or removal from office.

Grand jury foreman George "Buddy" Schulz Jr., an attorney at Holland & Knight, said the labor and expense of a trial wouldn't be worth securing $500 fines.

The grand jury praised steps the council has taken to improve its openness. The council began posting all public meeting notices online and banned public meetings in private council offices and off-site locales. The council also passed the "Jacksonville Sunshine Law Compliance Act," which essentially reaffirms the state law and adds compliance checks. It introduced these changes in anticipation of the Times-Union's published investigation.

"I think that there were technical aspects that we have taken strides to fix," council President Daniel Davis said, "and I think that at this point if you look at how the City Council records meetings and notices meetings and has it open to the public, it's a very positive step."

He said the biggest thing he took away from the report was its conclusion that council members be allowed to socialize and have collegial relationships.

Davis declined to comment specifically on the conclusions about the community's lack of trust in government, saying "there is always work to be done." He added that citizens he deals with "seem to think we're doing a pretty good job. …