The Gainesville City Commission voted unanimously on Thursday to retain additional outside legal counsel to represent the city in its legal challenge to House Bill 1 and allow other Florida cities to join the lawsuit.
The commission decided 4-3 to move forward with the litigation in August, and Mayor Lauren Poe clarified that Thursday’s vote wasn’t to reconsider the overall direction the city had already taken.
“I really hope that even if you were not in the majority initially, that you would see this is a ministerial change and that it can only benefit the city by having two highly respected, incredible legal teams join this multicity effort,” Poe said.
Commissioners Reina Saco, Harvey Ward and Desmon Duncan-Walker voted against the litigation in August but joined the other commissioners for Thursday’s decision.
At the meeting, Saco said the other commissioners already knew her stance on the litigation but, because their meetings are public, decided not to elaborate on her problems with it.
In August, Saco, a lawyer, repeatedly called HB 1 “awful” but said she had problems with the outside counsel’s work on the draft complaint. She also said she was afraid that if the city filed the lawsuit and lost, it would only make the law more dangerous and difficult to challenge.
HB 1 contains provisions related to criminal penalties for violence and property destruction at protests. But the city’s lawsuit challenges the ability of the governor and his cabinet to alter local enforcement budgets.
On Thursday, Saco said she had been unable to see the updated draft of the lawsuit when she had asked for it.
She asked that the outside counsel, which offered their services pro-bono and now included the Public Rights Project, Community Justice Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Jenner & Block, communicate better with the city attorney’s office.
Ward echoed that sentiment. He was encouraged that other cities had joined but said the city’s external counsel needs to improve its communication with the city that is their client.
Jonathan Miller, legal director of the Public Rights Project, said the counsel has heard the commission’s comments and would implement them.
Daniel Nee, the city’s new interim attorney, said one of his office’s main concerns is ensuring advocacy groups follow city interests and not their own.
“We generally don’t retain just groups but lawyers to ensure the significance of that attorney-client relationship, that accountability that’s a part of that relationship,” Nee said.
He added that the city had just received the list of 13 attorneys who would join the litigation team from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Jenner & Block.
The main force behind the initial vote to challenge HB 1 was former Commissioner Gail Johnson, who resigned from the commission in early October.
At Thursday’s meeting, she showed up to speak during early public comment, encouraging her former colleagues to continue the work already underway. She said it would be a shame for Gainesville to lead the charge and then back down.
The Florida government, Johnson said, was attacking home rule and the way Gainesville chooses to keep its community safe.
“You all know that for all the wrong reasons, Florida is in the news quite a bit lately, really, because of our authoritarian and often unconstitutional laws that stem from our governor and our Legislature,” Johnson said.
She asked the commission to continue with the coalition of cities, including North Miami, Tallahassee, North Bay Village, Lake Worth, Lauderdale, North Miami Beach and Walton Manors, and challenge the state law.
“And dare I say, I’m also asking you to stand with me as I was the commissioner who brought this forward,” Johnson said.
Gainesville’s outside legal counsel plans to file the lawsuit by the end of the year.