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School Board Violated Sunshine Law, Says Judge, Abates Lawsuit Against BOCC

BROOKSVILLE – A Fifth Circuit Judge in Lake County has ordered the abatement of a lawsuit filed against the Hernando Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) by the Hernando County School Board (HCSB).

The dispute began earlier this year, after commissioners refused to place the ½ cent sales tax extension referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Instead, commissioners wanted to place the item on the ballot for the 2024 election.

With negotiations at an impasse, school board members chose to file a lawsuit against the BOCC and let a judge resolve the dispute.

Last Thursday, Judge Lawrence J. Semento ordered an abatement of the lawsuit and ruled that the HCSB violated the Sunshine Law when they held a private meeting (Shade Meeting) to decide whether to move forward with litigation against the BOCC.

In part, 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."

In conclusion, Judge Semento wrote, "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..."

This was good news for BOCC members and candidates, like Mike Fulford who told R News, 'The lawsuit should have never been filed. Government agencies should be able to settle their differences outside of the courtroom. I fully agree with the Judge's decision to abate the lawsuit,"

Community organizer April Johnson-Spence is the only Republican candidate for County Commission to openly support the referendum and stands with the School Board's decision to sue the BOCC. During a special school board meeting on May 17th, Johnson-Spence stated, "I think the voters should be the ones to decide on the school's tax renewal in November, so I do approve of you going forward with this legal counsel." She goes on to say, "The school district and the county should be working together for the needs of the community and not fighting each other in regards to our comp plan."

Hernando County School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said in a statement, "At this point, our attorneys are reviewing the order to evaluate options for response. I am confident we all remain optimistic that Hernando County voters will have the opportunity to be heard on the continuation of the ½ penny this election cycle."


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