Exploring Transparency in Government: The Satellite Beach Lawsuit and Florida's Sunshine Law

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A lawsuit filed against the City of Satellite Beach highlights the importance of correctly determining whether a meeting must be made open to the public. The sunshine law helps citizens learn what their government is doing. Courts rarely punish Sunshine Law offenders, even though they can order those offenders to pay civic penalties and the litigation expenses of citizens who prove the violations.

The Satellite Beach Lawsuit and Florida's Sunshine Law

In September 2018, citizens arrived at a publicly posted meeting; they were met by police officers who informed them that it was a "private meeting" and only a select few citizens were allowed inside. The meeting was initially advertised as a public "workshop" but was abruptly canceled by the City on the day of the meeting.

A group of residents took legal action when they were denied access to a meeting they had scheduled with Robert Bowcock, an expert on water issues who has worked alongside Erin Brockovich. The purpose of the meeting was to address concerns about PFAS contamination and potential health risks. However, only certain citizens could attend, as the Council selectively chose who could participate, leaving others out.

One of those residents permitted into the meeting later sent an 11-page packet, which contained intimidations and harassment, to the plaintiff's house. They were even found in public records suggesting placing "bots" on the plaintiff's nonprofit organization's website, causing financial harm. Investigation revealed that the City of Satellite Beach was involved in the packet, as it was printed by the City Manager's assistant on November 19, 2018, using taxpayers' funds, as shown in public records.
Suggesting placing "bots" on the plaintiff's nonprofit organization's website

Packet printed at City Hall
Sharing details about advocates, such as addresses

Multiple sources, including video footage, photos, documents, and testimonies from several residents, professionals, and media outlets, confirm that elected officials Mindy Gibson, Mark Brimer, and Frank Catino were behind closed doors. The Sunshine Law ensures that meetings involving "official business by any agency" are accessible to the public. It prohibits public officials from holding private meetings to discuss any matter on which the public board or commission will take foreseeable action.

According to public records, government officials have admitted to trying to bypass the sunshine law by rotating officials during meetings. This shows that they are willing to violate the constitutional right of access. Such actions only serve to diminish trust in the government. Instead of avoiding transparency, city officials should welcome it. 

It has been discovered that PFAS chemicals were utilized at Patrick Space Force Base (previously known as Air Force Base), leading to the detection of these chemicals in the groundwater of Satellite Beach City. Following the open meetings law, the public should have been allowed to attend the meeting regarding PFAS contamination. Mayor Frank Catino made a statement on September 19, 2018, confirming that the meeting's purpose was to address concerns about the contaminated water.

A lawsuit was filed by citizens whose rights were violated, and after 18 months, Judge Paulk dismissed the case. Due to pandemic restrictions, the hearing was conducted over the phone, and government attorneys repeatedly postponed it while modifying and updating paperwork. Due to this decision, the plaintiffs could not present their evidence or witnesses in court.

The plaintiffs decided to challenge the court's ruling, but the appellate court supported Judge Paulk's decision to dismiss the case. However, the court did not provide any explanation for its decision. The court also ruled that the lawsuit was not frivolous or filed in bad faith and rejected the city's request for attorneys' fees and costs filed on March 8, 2022. 

The government officials consider the dismissal a victory since the judge didn't proceed with the case. They aim to schedule a hearing in April 2023 and return to Judge Paulk in the lower court to request attorneys' fees and costs, despite the appellate court rejecting their motion.  

The government officials avoided a trial with photos, video, documents, and witness evidence. However, instead of dropping the case, they are now pursuing the victims for payment of their legal fees, even though their rights were violated. By continuing this legal battle and returning to the lower court, the government is creating a financial burden for the affected families. Furthermore, they are utilizing taxpayer money to retaliate against those who acted to safeguard lives in their community.

Scientific testing, studies, medical screening guidance, a FUDS designation, new drinking water advisory levels, and national discussions have all substantiated the plaintiff's concerns regarding water contamination in 2018.

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