Sunshine Offenses Won't Be Pursued; 'CLEAR CRIMINAL INTENT' State Attorney Says He Needs to See That before He'll Prosecute Any City Council Violations. NONCRIMINAL CHARGES OUT Shorstein Says He's Too Busy with Violent Crimes to Devote Time to Civil Infractions

Article excerpt

Byline: BETH KORMANIK

Short of seeing evidence of a kickback to a Jacksonville City Council member or other criminal act, State Attorney Harry Shorstein said Tuesday he was not willing to prosecute any violations of the state's open meetings law.

"I do not think I would ever charge anybody without a clear criminal intent," he said in a meeting with the Times-Union editorial board.

A grand jury report unsealed Monday found evidence that council members committed "technical or noncriminal" violations of the law, which is intended to open government decision-making to the public. The law requires that whenever two members of the public board or commission meet to discuss public business that they provide advance notice of the meeting, open it to the public and keep written minutes.

Criminal violations occur when officials knowingly meet privately to talk about public business. The violations are punished by jail time, fines or removal from office.

But the law also provides for non-criminal violations, punishable by fines up to $500.

Shorstein said he has the option to pursue noncriminal charges but likely would not. He said he is busy with violent crimes to devote time to civil infractions and doesn't want to risk losing the case and damaging the cause.

Other state attorneys in Florida have successfully pursued open meetings violations that did not involve wider corruption.

In one case, four Pompano Beach city commissioners in 2006 admitted they violated the law when they met with Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne over breakfast to talk about crime.

They each donated $200 to charity as a penalty.

Officials in Ocoee, near Orlando, and in Polk County paid fines and court costs in separate Sunshine Law cases in 2006.

In Duval County, the grand jury instead compiled its findings into a report that it hopes results in better behavior by public officials. If not, it concludes, voters can exact punishment in the next election.

In an investigation last year, the Times-Union documented dozens of meetings about public business held without public notice or written minutes and several meetings in private places, a violation of the city's ethics code. It also uncovered a deeply flawed system of public notification about public meetings. …

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