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The Florida Times-Union Prevails in Court

The Florida Times-Union Prevails in Court

I've asked Mark Nusbaum, president of the Florida Times-Union and Times-Union Media to guest blog for me this week and highlight the amazing journalism effort by the T-U.  As we build the business for tomorrow, this blog is an important reminder of the important role we play in a free society.  



It was in June 2013, when the Florida Times-Union and Editor Frank Denton filed a lawsuit, contending that the City of Jacksonville and the Police and Fire Pension Fund had violated Florida Sunshine Law when they negotiated pension benefits behind closed doors.

For 32 months, the T-U and Denton remained on a legal journey that traversed its way through Circuit Court, The Florida State Court of Appeal, and finally, The Florida Supreme Court. We won at every step, and the courts nullified the secret agreement.TimelineForBlog.jpg

Click here for hi-res version of the timeline.

Last week, the legal journey ended, as the Supreme Court refused to hear a final challenge on the part of the Pension Fund, thus determining the City of Jacksonville and the Pension Fund violated state Sunshine Law when the two parties negotiated their original agreement.

“This has been a long time in coming but well worth the wait,’’’ Denton said in a statement. “At every level now, the courts have resoundingly confirmed what the law clearly says: The public’s business must be done in the public eye. This is an expensive lesson for our public officials but, we hope, an enduring one.’’

That original agreement, for a variety of reasons, was also rejected by the Jacksonville City Council. And subsequent negotiations were conducted in the public eye, as the law requires, and the City and Pension Fund ultimately settled on a plan that addresses nearly $2 billion in unfunded liability.

But that didn’t prevent the City and the Pension Fund from continuing to contest the original lawsuit brought by the Times-Union and Denton. Both the City and Pension Fund appealed Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace’s summary judgment in favor of the Times-Union to the State Appeal  Court, where they lost a second round. That was in October 2014. At that point, the City dropped out, but the Pension Fund battled on, appealing for one last hearing at the state Supreme Court level. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court said no.

For those us working at the Times-Union, it was a career-defining moment.

We will forever be thankful that our owners, the Morris family, supported us without blinking, even though legal bills were stacking up, as the city and the Pension Fund battled us with what seemed like a never-ending supply of legal counsel.

In the end, our own legal fees exceeded $300,000. We don’t know how much the City of Jacksonville and the Pension Fund spent on their side of the argument, but we believe it to be substantial. Under state law, the city and pension fund will have to reimburse most if not all of our fees.

We are thankful, of course, that we prevailed. But we are also thankful for Jacksonville. We think that ultimately, Jacksonville – and its future – benefitted from our legal intervention, as well as our comprehensive reporting and editorial leadership on the pension fund story as it evolved over nearly three years.

Our reporters spent months demanding and evaluating volumes of public records and interviewing officials and experts. One big headline that defined the investigative project was “The $5 million cop,” showing how much one police officer would get in pension benefits over his lifetime. Another, about the pension fund’s lavishly paid executive director, said: “His pension’s fully funded.” Another headline, “Too much of a good thing?,” was over a story detailing how three insiders manipulated the pension system to get another $2 million in benefits. By time we finished, our readers understood the Police and Fire Pension Fund, its abuses and the challenge the city faced in creating reform. The Times-Union editorial page provided commentary and insight that fueled public discussion.

Certainly, our readers noticed.

“The Times-Union is to be commended for its dogged determination to bring facts to light about unwholesome financial practices taking place for years at the Police and Fire Pension Fund,’’ former City Council President Clay Yarborough said. “Also, we need to be thankful to have a mayor who leads in Lenny Curry. The people of Jacksonville will benefit through his efforts to bring about a long-term, sustainable solution on the matter of pension reform.’’

We hope that Mr. Yarborough is right about Jacksonville finding that ultimate solution for pension reform. We believe that we at the T-U have made a significant contribution in the process, and we pledge to carry on in the same vigilant manner going forward.

This is what we do.

Mark Nusbaum
Florida Times-Union and Times-Union Media