On July 28, 2022, Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Lawrence J. Semento ordered the abatement (halting) of the lawsuit filed by the Hernando County School Board against the Hernando County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC); in part, because the school board violated Florida Sunshine Law during a shade meeting prior to adopting a resolution to sue the county on June 14, 2022.
A shade meeting is a confidential meeting between legal representation and the board where transcripts are recorded and released after litigation is finished. There are limits on what can be discussed during a shade meeting.
The school board filed the lawsuit after the BOCC decided to place the school district’s half-cent sales tax renewal referendum on the 2024 ballot instead of the 2022 ballot which they had requested.
The school board passed a resolution (R22-007) to go forward with the lawsuit at a board meeting on June 14, 2022. But the county argued that the lawsuit should not go forward because of a Florida law that requires the two government entities in disagreement to go through mediation prior to the filing of any lawsuit.
The school board argued that this resolution invoked a state law that “provides that a governing body may determine by a vote of three-fourths that the Act (requiring mediation) should not be complied with due to an immediate danger to the health, safety, or welfare of the public that requires immediate action, or that significant legal rights will be compromised.”
The Board of County Commissioners’ motion to abate also stated that prior to the school board’s vote to approve resolution R22-007, an improper shade meeting was held which would void any subsequent actions taken on the matter.
In reviewing the transcript of the shade meeting, Judge Semento found that the school board did violate Florida Sunshine Law. Judge Semento explains that Florida law limits the discussion during a shade meeting to “settlement negotiations or strategy sessions related to litigation expenditures.” Discussion of issues outside the scope of 286.011(8)(b) during a “shade meeting” is in violation of Sunshine Law and may void decisions made during the shade meeting.”
Semento stated that during the shade meeting school board members decided by consensus to forgo the mediation because it would take more than 90 days. This is outside of the scope of what is allowed to be discussed during a shade meeting. Additionally, the public meeting after the shade meeting did not fix the lack of public participation in the meeting.
Judge Semento wrote, “Moreover, while the board stated it was not deciding whether to pass a resolution during the shade meeting, it did decide whether “as a board by consensus are directing that you don’t want to engage in mediation if it’s going to take more than 90 days.” Since the doctrine of cure does apply where the subsequent action crystalizes a previously made decision, it does not appear based on the record before the Court that the doctrine of “cure” would permit reinstatement based on any action taken at the public meeting.
Judge Semento concludes, “Finally, the Plaintiffs suggest in passing that the Defendants lack standing to raise a challenge to the passage of R22-007. However, as R22-007 seeks to divest the Defendants of the ability to invoke the conflict resolution proceedings, the Defendants are clearly the real party at interest and entitled to challenge its validity (including the factual basis for its passage, Section 164.1041 (2) Fla. Stat.) Accordingly, abatement may not be denied on this ground either. Abatement is thus mandated by statute, and it is therefore, ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Defendant’s Motion to Abate is GRANTED, and this action is abated until further order of the court.”