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New financial disclosure law for cities and county election officials is challenged

Four men applaud as they sit at a wooden dais with Florida and US flags displayed on the wall, as another man stands up to leave the dais
City of St. Pete Beach
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Screengrab
St. Pete Beach city commissioners applaud Chris Marone as he prepares to leave a special meeting after announcing his resignation.

The law has resulted in the resignation of many city officials - including a majority of commissioners in St. Pete Beach.

Municipalities and dozens of local elected officials from across Florida filed state and federal lawsuits Thursday challenging the constitutionality of a new law that requires the officials to disclose detailed information about their personal finances.

The lawsuits, filed in Leon County circuit court and federal court in South Florida, contend that the disclosure requirement violates privacy rights under the Florida Constitution and First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The law, passed during the 2023 legislative session, requires mayors and other elected municipal officials, such as members of city councils, to file annual reports detailing issues such as their net worths, incomes and assets. Other elected officials, such as the governor and state legislators, have long faced such requirements.

The new law has caused an uproar among local governments, with more than 100 municipal officials resigning because of it, according to the Weiss Serota Helfman Cole + Bierman law firm, which filed the lawsuits.

“Requiring that uncompensated (or minimally compensated) municipal elected officials disclose their precise net worth, income and assets does not serve (let alone constitute the least restrictive means of serving) any compelling interest,” the lawsuit filed in Leon County said.

The lawsuits name as defendants members of the Florida Commission on Ethics, which administers and enforces disclosure laws. Plaintiffs in the lawsuits include officials and communities ranging from Miami Springs to Destin.

In the past, municipal officials were required to file what is known as a “Form 1,” which provided less-detailed financial information. The law requires them to file a more-detailed “Form 6” by July 1. It applies to officials who were in their positions on Jan. 1 and also will apply to candidates for municipal offices, according to the lawsuits.

Cities like St. Pete Beach, Anna Maria island and tiny Eagle Lake in Polk County are among those seeing resignations.

Explaining his reason for stepping down from the St. Pete Beach city commission at a meeting last December, Chris Marone called the new rules "so personally intrusive and invasive that it would require me to disclose financial information that I wouldn't disclose to my kids."

Mark Grill, who also resigned, called the law another example of government overreach, and said it would make it harder to find candidates for local office — positions that demand a lot of time but sometimes pay very little.

Supporters of detailed disclosure requirements say, in part, that such information can help show officials’ potential conflicts of interest while conducting government business.

But the lawsuits contend that the new requirement is not the “least restrictive” way to accomplish such goals.

“Forcing municipal elected officials and municipal candidates to publicly make such statements impairs their right to be free of government-compelled, content-based, non-commercial speech, in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the federal lawsuit said.

The lawsuit filed in Leon County, meanwhile, said “the right to privacy is a fundamental right within Florida’s Constitution.”

“Forcing municipal elected officials and candidates to publicly disclose such private information impairs their right to privacy under the Florida Constitution,” the circuit-court lawsuit said. “Because the right to privacy is enumerated as a fundamental right, any such impairment is impermissible unless it is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling state interest.”

Both lawsuits seek injunctions against the requirement.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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