Democracy: Council Chambers, Not Courtrooms

Democracy: Council Chambers, Not Courtrooms

In so many conversations about the potential for litigation, some lawyer will explain to the concerned public or company officials that, in effect, one can be sued for anything. Whether or not a plaintiff will prevail is an entirely different matter.

The problem is, if one is sued, one must defend oneself. If the suit is truly frivolous, one might secure relief from the courts in the form of summary judgment or swift dismissal. One might even secure attorneys’ fees or punitive damages. However, these options are not always available, and governments, because they recognize that the litigants often are members of the community too, are loath to be too aggressive in this regard.

Taxpayers pick up the tab when a city, county or special district is sued. There’s no such thing as ‘the city’s money’; it essentially comes from us, the residents, businesses, and visitors. When a city, county or special district must defend itself in court, we are the ones who pay.

While I absolutely believe that citizens have the right to bring suit against their government for wrongs (and perceived wrongs) done to them, I also am concerned about the costs to our communities when such litigation is frivolous or exploits loopholes or mistakes in the law.

For that reason, I applaud the recent Florida Supreme Court decision (Reynolds v. Leon County Energy Improvement District) which has corrected an error in previous court decisions and firmly closed the door on one type of inappropriate appeal of local government action.

Reynolds concerns an appeal of the decision in a bond validation hearing. My interest isn’t in that process itself. What is important about the decision is that the Court insisted aggrieved parties must raise their objections at the trial court level. They can’t wait for that round of hearings to conclude and then extend the litigation by entering an appeal.

For the most part, this is the way the judicial system works and the way it should work. Only those active in the trial court proceeding may appeal the outcome of that proceeding.

If this should be true of any process, it should be true of how the courts deal with local government actions. Local governments, at least at the level of policy (like issuing a bond), are required by Florida’s extensive public records and public meetings requirements to give the public broad access to the relevant information and ample opportunity to address the decision makers about their concerns. That opportunity includes the right to speak at public hearings.

Perhaps even more important, citizens can address their concerns directly with the municipal or county decision makers who live where they live, shop where they shop, and make decisions, not in a distant capitol, but right downtown.

Our cities and counties provide ample opportunities for citizens to engage the policy process. Debates about the wisdom of particular policies should take place through these opportunities.

Take it to the next level: If one believes that council is acting unwisely, in most of our cities it simply isn’t that hard to mount a serious campaign against an incumbent. The money required to run effectively is quite modest, the rules relatively straightforward. If aggrieved citizens can’t mount a successful electoral challenge to those who sit on their city council, the odds are that those aggrieved citizens simply are out of step with the opinions of their fellow citizens. That’s how local democracy works.

State law and the recent Supreme Court decision reflect the wise view that there is ample opportunity to address these matters at the local government level. The trial courtroom provides a backup should something truly go awry.

But the first and best place to make sure our local governments work is by being engaged in the local government process, through discussion with officials, participation in hearings, and the electoral process.

There’s a word for that: democracy