Marcy LaHart: Bringing Sunshine to biomass contract negotiations

Published: Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 10:05 p.m.

In honor of Sunshine Week, I would like to respond to Mayor Craig Lowe's accusations that the lawsuit I brought on behalf of Gainesville Citizens CARE Inc. was “spurious” and “aggressively frivolous.”

The mayor's allegations were especially curious given that the city, which employs nine lawyers, nonetheless paid close to $100,000 to a Jacksonville law firm to defend itself against a lawsuit filed by a solo practitioner whose only support staff is a geriatric Doberman.

The suit maligned by Lowe sought to void the biomass “power purchase agreement,” which obligates Gainesville Regional Utilities to buy all of the power produced by the biomass plant for the next 30 years, whether we need it or not.

It is undisputed that a series of closed-door meetings took place over the course of a year in which the terms of the agreement were hammered out by representatives of Gainesville Regional Utilities and the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC), the corporate entity that is building the biomass plant. Where my clients and the city sharply disagreed was whether those closed meetings were subject to the Sunshine Law.

Central to the city's defense against the lawsuit was its apparent assumption that so long as Robert Hunzinger, the general manager of Gainesville Regional Utilities, made all of the final decisions regarding the content of the agreement, the negotiating team meetings could be conducted behind closed doors.

However, longstanding Sunshine Law jurisprudence establishes that the law applies to the entire decision-making process, not just the end result. If the negotiation team members deliberated with Hunzinger, and/or amongst themselves, and/or with representatives of GREC, the negotiation team meetings violated the Sunshine Law.

Rather than waste taxpayer money on a multiple-day trial hashing out what actually happened at those closed-door meetings, the parties reached a settlement agreement. It cost the city nothing and required the city to do no more than it should have periodically done throughout the negotiations: publicly discuss and answer citizens' questions about the terms of the agreement.

Lowe voted against accepting the settlement agreement after stating in an email to the six other members of the City Commission that the workshop would be a “farce.”

I, for one, am proud of the ultimate result, an open discussion in which everyone was fully heard and many previously unanswered questions were addressed. It was in sharp contrast to the commission's standard practice of politely listening or pretending to listen to public comment for three minutes, and going on to the next speaker, often wholly ignoring citizens' legitimate questions.

What was “aggressively frivolous” was not the Sunshine lawsuit filed in good faith, but the mayor's vote to reject a very fair settlement and spend more taxpayer money proceeding to a trial, the results of which were uncertain at best.

Marcy I. LaHart lives in Gainesville.

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