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Duval Watchdog Group Sues City Over Sunshine Law Violation

Jacksonville City Hall, St. James Building
Ray Hollister

The Jacksonville watchdog group Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County is suing the city over City Council members’ text messaging during meetings.

Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law mandates that any communications public officials have about issues that they will decide on must be done in the full view of the public. 

The group said the violation of the "Sunshine" law should reverse the council’s decision to keep 17 firefighters from losing promotions.

In September, the City Council reversed course on demoting the firefighters after council members coordinated via text message.

The Council initially rejected using $300,000 budgeted for drainage projects to keep the firefighters at their current positions. But Concerned Citizens President John Winkler said it reversed course shortly before the meeting adjourned.

“Clearly something had happened. I was sitting in the audience,” Winkler said. “It was obvious someone had been influencing the City Council members.”

The Florida Times-Union obtained text messages from Firefighters Union President Randy Wyse asking council members during the meeting to make the fund transfer. Now Winkler is asking a judge to reverse that budget decision and much more.

“City Council members have to be prohibited from having devices that can receive electronic communications during the meeting. Period,” Winkler said. “They’re going to have to check their phones at the door.”

In response to the suit, Councilman Bill Gulliford is proposing a rule clarifying council members can't text during meetings, and, as Florida Politics first reported, Council President Greg Anderson is asking members to turn off phones during future meetings.

But Winkler said that doesn't undo what was already done outside the sunshine. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.