Jackson Lab activist sues Collier commissioners, alleging Sunshine Law violation

Outburst in Commissioners Chambers

John Lundin accuses commissioners of breaking Sunshine ...

Jackson Laboratory activist John Lundin has filed a lawsuit against the Collier County Commission for allowing two commissioners to travel to Maine this past summer to tour the genetics research laboratory which may have been a violation of the state’s Sunshine Law.

If the court decides the state’s public meetings’ law was violated, the lawsuit seeks to have any board vote on the Jackson project declared void while the lawsuit is ongoing, according to the complaint filed by Fort Myers attorney Steve Carta.

Carta could not say what time period of board decisions would be voided if he prevails.

“It all depends on how the facts unravel,” he said.

The complaint said Commissioners Jim Coletta and Donna Fiala went to Bar Harbor the weekend of July 16-18 for “fact finding” about Jackson Labs and doing so constituted a meeting of the commission and therefore required a public notice of the meeting and minutes. In June, the board approved the commissioners’ trip as “fact finding” and therefore was not subject to the state’s Sunshine Law, the complaint said.

“Plaintiff, on the other hand, maintains that there is no “fact-finding” exception to the Sunshine Law for a gathering of two or more members of a board, and that, under the controlling law of Florida, the tour constituted a meeting subject to the requirements of the Sunshine Law,” according to the complaint.

Carta said there have been similar cases, most notably where the Fifth District Court of Appeal in 2008 ruled a Sunshine Law violation occurred in Seminole County when some members of the Seminole County School Board took a bus tour that was deemed a “fact finding” event for rezoning purposes. The appeals court ruled there was an unintentional violation of the law.

Lundin initially filed a complaint with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in late July about a possible Sunshine Law violation based on two photographs, one of Coletta and the second of Fiala, that were taken by the Naples Daily News in Bar Harbor. In the photograph of Coletta, Lundin said a woman standing a few feet away with her back turned was Fiala. He said the two commissioners may have been in earshot of each other and heard what the other was saying.

Jackson officials later identified the woman as the daughter of a laboratory supporter from Cleveland, Tenn., and she contacted the sheriff’s office. In early August, the sheriff’s office dismissed Lundin’s complaint. Laboratory officials said the two commissioners had separate tours and did not eat meals together because of Sunshine concerns.

Lundin also contacted Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. In an e-mail to him, Peterson said the law applies when two or more members of the same board discuss public business but nothing prevented the two commissioners from travelling together, socializing or collecting information about Jackson as long as they don’t discuss the laboratory among themselves.

Connect with health-care reporter Liz Freeman at www.naplesnews.com/staff/liz_freeman

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