Judge stops school board’s lawsuit against BOCC citing sun law violation


On July 28, 2022, Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Lawrence J. Semento ordered a reduction (stay) of the lawsuit brought by the Hernando County School Board against the Hernando County Board of Commissioners (BOCC); in part, because the school board violated Florida Sunshine Law during a shadowy meeting before passing a resolution to sue the county on June 14, 2022.

A shaded meeting is a confidential meeting between legal representation and counsel where transcripts are recorded and released after the litigation is over. There are limits to what can be discussed in a meeting in the shade.

The school board has filed a lawsuit after the BOCC decided to put the referendum on renewing the school district’s half-cent sales tax on the 2024 ballot instead of the 2022 ballot that it had asked.

The school board passed a resolution (R22-007) to continue the lawsuit at a board meeting on June 14, 2022. But the county argued that the lawsuit should not go ahead due to a Florida law that requires two government entities in disagreement to go through mediation before filing any lawsuit.

The school board argued that this resolution invoked state law which “provides that a governing body may determine by a three-fourths vote that the law (requiring mediation) shall not be obeyed because of a immediate danger to the health, safety, or welfare of the public which requires immediate action, or that important legal rights will be impaired”.

The county board of commissioners’ motion to repeal also said that prior to the school board’s vote to approve resolution R22-007, an improper shady meeting had taken place, which would negate any further action taken on the matter.

Reviewing the transcript of the shaded meeting, Judge Semento found that the school board violated Florida Sunshine Law. Judge Semento explains that Florida law limits discussion in a shaded meeting to “settlement negotiations or strategy sessions related to litigation expenses.” Discussing matters outside the scope of 286.011(8)(b) in a “shaded meeting” is in violation of Sunshine Law and may override decisions made in the shaded meeting.

Semento said at the shady meeting, school board members decided by consensus to forgo mediation because it would take longer than 90 days. This is outside the scope of what is allowed to be discussed in a shady meeting. In addition, the public meeting after the meeting in the shade did not resolve the lack of public participation in the meeting.

Judge Semento wrote, “Furthermore, while the board said it was not deciding whether or not to pass a resolution at the mock meeting, it decided whether ‘as a consensus board, you don’t want to not engage in mediation if it will take longer than 90 days. Since the cure doctrine applies where the subsequent action crystallizes a previously made decision, it does not appear from the record before the Court that the “cure” doctrine would permit reinstatement based on any action taken at the public meeting.

Judge Semento concludes: “Finally, the plaintiffs suggest in passing that the defendants do not have standing to challenge the passage of R22-007. However, as R22-007 seeks to deprive the defendants of the ability to invoke the dispute resolution procedure, the defendants are clearly the true interested party and entitled to challenge its validity (including the factual basis for its adoption, article 164.1041 (2) Fla. Stat.) Accordingly, the reduction cannot be refused on this ground either. The reduction is therefore mandated by law, and it is therefore ORDERED AND ADJUDICATED that the defendant’s motion for reduction is GRANTED, and this action is stayed until further order of the court. »

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