Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Graham Denies He Has Violated Sunshine Law

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Graham Denies He Has Violated Sunshine Law

Article excerpt

Byline: Caren Burmeister, Shorelines staff writer

In his first six months in office, Jacksonville City Councilman Art Graham has worked to ensure beach renourishment and road and park improvements -- and recently, he's been defending himself against possible state open meetings law violations.

Graham, who was elected last spring to represent the three Beaches cities and the Deerwood and Baymeadows area, denies he violated the Florida Sunshine Law by hosting several meetings to discuss city business with other council members at restaurants.

He said last week he followed city policy by posting public notices beforehand with the date, time, place and subject matter of the meeting on a community bulletin board and in media mailboxes at Jacksonville City Hall. He said he plans to continue the meetings unless he's advised to stop.

"I don't see it as a violation," Graham said. "I don't see that I'm hiding because I'm posting notices."

The Sunshine Law protects the right of public access to governmental proceedings, including discussions, deliberations and formal actions. It's based on the premise that the decision-making process, from start to finish, is a matter of public concern. The law applies when two or more board members meet, even casually, to discuss issues that the board could address in the foreseeable future.

Public access begins with reasonable notice given in a sufficient manner, time and content so the public and media can attend, said Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit group that works to protect the public's constitutional right to open government.

Peterson characterized Graham's meetings as "extremely problematic" and said she's skeptical about whether he's met the standard for reasonable notice.

"This is exactly the kind of behavior that the Sunshine Law is meant to discourage," Peterson said.

Graham said he's following directions given by the city attorney for meetings between council members.

"I'm following what's been laid out in our protocol," he said.

It is longstanding practice for some Jacksonville City Council members to meet outside City Hall, primarily because many of them work at another job and they live so far apart, said Cindy Warner, the City Council's public information officer. Council members attended a two-day orientation on the Sunshine Law and the city attorney instructed them on meeting notice procedures.

Peterson acknowledged the law can be interpreted in different ways and said that only a court can determine if certain actions violate the law.

Shortly after he was elected, Graham met with Jacksonville City Councilman Lake Ray at a restaurant to discuss his role as vice chairman of the transportation committee.

More recently, Graham met with Jacksonville City Councilman Daniel Davis, who is the associate director of the Northeast Florida Builders Association, to discuss building height restrictions in Jacksonville Beach. …

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