Judge halts Florida law requiring city governments to disclose more information

A federal judge has halted enforcement of a new state law that requires city officials to file more extensive financial disclosures while a legal challenge filed by officials in 45 municipalities is pending in court.

In her order granting the injunction on Monday, U.S. District Judge Melissa Damian wrote that the state failed to prove that it first sought to achieve its goal of stopping corruption and increasing transparency through less intrusive means. She wrote that the law is likely unconstitutional for content-based outrageous speech and that continued enforcement could cause irreparable harm.

At least 125 mayors and city council members across the state resigned before Jan. 1 to avoid disclosure, which Damian said shows the bill “already has had a chilling effect” on city offices.

The order prohibits the Ethics Commission from requiring city officials and candidates to submit financial information on Form 6 by the July 1 deadline, although many officials have already complied.

Ethics Commission Chief Administrator Lynn Blais did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Before the passage of Senate Bill 774 last May, mayors and city council members filed basic disclosures identifying their main sources of income, assets and liabilities, without listing dollar amounts.

The new law required all city officials to submit more detailed information, which had already been completed by county and state officials. Form 6 requires disclosure of net worth and an itemized list of assets, liabilities and sources of income over $1,000. In most cases, officials who own more than 5% of the company must also identify customers who generate more than 10% of the company’s income.

State Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, who sponsored the bill, previously said the measure is a matter of transparency for officials who have authority over the spending of millions of taxpayer dollars.

But opponents called the requirement an excessive legislative effort and a hindrance to recruiting people to serve at the city level, where, unlike county and state offices, officials often receive little or no compensation for their roles.

In February, officials from dozens of cities – including Safety Harbor – filed lawsuits in state and federal courts against members of the Florida Ethics Commission who enforce the law, maintaining that the requirement is “highly invasive” and unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from the Weiss Serota Helfman Cole + Bierman law firm. The governments they represent each paid $10,000 to join the complaint.

The complaints argued that less restrictive measures were available to pursue the “important state interest” of assessing conflicts of interest and preventing corruption. They cited less detailed information from Form 1 that city officials filed before the law changed.

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In its response, the state argued that Form 6 requirements for municipal elected officials and candidates serve as a “narrowly tailored measure to deter corruption and conflicts of interest, increase public confidence in Florida officials, and educate the public.”

In her order granting the injunction, Damian agreed that deterring corruption and increasing transparency were compelling state interests, but it was unclear how these interests necessitated the change to higher disclosure requirements.

The state provided “no evidence, data or research” showing how inadequate Form 1 was to further the state’s interest in preventing corruption, Damian wrote.

“It is not clear from the record that the change from a Form 1 requirement to a Form 6 requirement was necessary or that SB 774 is materially related to identified state interests,” Damian wrote.