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Sunshine Law at Heart of Lawsuits Against Panama City Beach

Mayor Mike Thomas (left) poses with Mary Jan Bossert (right) on May 10, 2019, during Municipal Clerks Week, six months before he allegedly berated her for providing a public record.
Debbie Ward. Used with permission by Mary Jan Bossert.
Mayor Mike Thomas (left) poses with Mary Jan Bossert (right) on May 10, 2019, during Municipal Clerks Week, six months before he allegedly berated her for providing a public record.

Two former Panama City Beach municipal clerks are suing the town after officials allegedly punished and dismissed them for providing public records. 

Mayor Mike Thomas (left) poses with Mary Jan Bossert (right) on May 10, 2019, during Municipal Clerks Week, six months before he allegedly berated her for providing a public record.
Credit Debbie Ward. Used with permission by Mary Jan Bossert.
Mayor Mike Thomas (left) poses with Mary Jan Bossert (right) on May 10, 2019, during Municipal Clerks Week, six months before he allegedly berated her for providing a public record.

Mary Jan Bossert’s last act as city clerk was to call the roll for her own firing.“The council humiliated me. They talked about me like I wasn’t even there,” Bossert said. “Then, to add insult to injury, I had to call the roll on my own termination.” 

After all five Panama City Beach council members voted for her removal, Mayor Mike Thomas asked her to gather her things and exit the building. 

Now, Bossert’s suing the city. 

She’s the second former clerk to take the town to court in recent years. In early 2018, Diane Floyd, who served in the record-keeping role for almost two years, took legal action against the city. 

Both women claim they were punished for responding appropriately to public records requests they’d received from Burnie Thompson, a local talk show host, whose criticisms at public meetings have often angered some council members, particularly the mayor.

“They would both be employed and not be harassed if it weren’t for me. I’m the thorn in the side. I’m the one [asking] the questions that they don’t like,” Thompson said. “I’ve struggled with that.” 

Over the last few years, Thompson says he's submitted hundreds of public records requests to the city. 

“They were mad that he was using these records, turning right around, and using these records against them,” said Marie Mattox, a Tallahassee-based attorney, who’s representing both former clerks and Thompson in a separate First Amendment complaint he’s brought against the city. 

“[They] made Diane Floyd quit. It was a constructive discharge where they forced her to resign,” Mattox said. “And then exactly the same thing happened to MJ, literally, she is berated by them, abused by them, and ultimately, they fired her.”

The city’s public information officer declined a request for comment on the pending litigation. But in a statement issued after Bossert’s firing, the city defended its employment practices as “just, fair and reasonable.” 

Both lawsuits claim the city violated a state whistleblower statute that protects public-sector employees from retaliation if they question suspected wrongdoing within their organization. 

“It’s not uncommon to file whistleblower complaints, but it is uncommon that the retaliation would be as a result of having provided public records,” Mattox said. “That so clearly would be illegal if you block somebody from getting public records.”

City clerks across the state serve at the front line of government transparency. They’re typically in charge of providing copies of public records to residents and the press. When handling records requests, they must respond to each and every inquiry, even if the information sought is private, said Bea Meeks, president of the Florida Association of City Clerks. 

“You can’t just tell somebody that you can’t give them a record,” Meeks said. “You have to tell them why and where in the statute that it says that.”

Government bodies have a “legal responsibility” to provide copies of public records to those who submit requests, “unless there is some exemption,” said Pamela Marsh, president of the First Amendment Foundation of Florida. 

She says the state’s constitutional guarantee to access public records coupled with freedom of speech and freedom of the press “are invaluable to our democracy.” 

“Those working together allow us to be involved in our government and to have some oversight of our government,” Marsh said. 

Before Mary Jan Bossert’s firing, the city received 41 emails from residents, asking council members to table the decision.

Cherie Crim was one of them. Crim is also running for City Council in Ward 4, which covers most neighborhoods west of Pier Park. In a video from her campaign’s Facebook page, Crim stood outside City Hall and defended Bossert. 

“I would’ve spoken up for MJ because this is not how you treat somebody,” Crim said. “We need to treat people with kindness, respect and dignity. There was absolutely no reason that that City Council should’ve done what they did in the middle of this coronavirus.” 

Bossert’s troubles at work began in mid-November after she sent Thompson a list of city manager applicants that he’d requested, the lawsuit claims. Within hours after she’d released a copy of the public record, the mayor verbally abused her, she said. 

“Mayor Thomas confronted me about the request and stated, ‘You f—ed up, little girl. You f—ed up,’” Bossert wrote in an email. She says she notified the city’s human resources department, but they never took action. 

Thomas has publicly denied the allegation. When asked to comment on the pending litigation for this story, he declined.  

The suit also alleges City Council Member Hector Solis “berated her extensively” and “asked her how she learned how to respond to public records requests,” after she responded to Thompson’s request. Solis didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

After Bossert explained to Solis that she would’ve broken the law if she had denied Thompson’s request, her employment “plummeted downhill,” the lawsuit claims. 

In January, she received below-average marks on her evaluations from all five council members. But she says none of them would meet with her to discuss their concerns. In February, they offered her a lower-paying job. After she turned it down, they offered her severance and a chance to resign quietly, she said. 

When she saw that her evaluations were included on the consent agenda for the council meeting on March 26, she wrote to council members that she felt her poor performance marks were retaliation for fulfilling the records request, she said. They fired her at the meeting four days later. 

At that meeting, before Solis made the motion to terminate Bossert, he defended the decision, arguing that it made sense because all five council members gave her below-average evaluations. 

“You would have somebody that was up or down or two people having a difference of opinion, but in this particular case - and the evaluations are out there - it’s amazing that they were all on that level,” Solis said. 

But Bossert’s attorney Marie Mattox has a different theory for how council members arrived at their unanimous decision to fire the former clerk. “It’s collusion,” she said. “They can’t all vote that way. Are you kidding me? Most of them don’t even know what she was doing. So, how in the world can there be consistency in the way that they voted, unless there was some collusion behind the scenes?”

Bossert’s lawsuit seeks at least $30,000. But winning the case is about much more than money, Mattox said. 

“After you’ve been berated by the supervisors, you’ve got to get your self-esteem back,” Mattox said. “Even though you know that you’ve done the right thing and that nothing that you’ve done is wrong…it still does something to your self-esteem.”

Neither Mayor Mike Thomas nor Council Member Hector Solis are seeking reelection. They will both retire from the council after April 21.  

As for Mary Jan Bossert, she says she’s trying to find a new job, but it hasn’t been easy.

“I’m a mom that has to take care of my kids and for the first time in thirty seven years, I had to apply for unemployment,” she said. “And it’s scary.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly credited the above photo to Mary Jan Bossert. While Bossert provided the photo, it was taken by Debbie Ward, the city's public information officer. 

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.