By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Fort Lauderdale taxpayers face the prospect of having to foot the bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees run up during the city’s unconstitutional efforts to shut down the practice of food sharing with the homeless in downtown Stranahan Park.
And that’s not counting more than $45,000 the city has already paid its outside law firm, Johnson, Anselmo, Murdoch, Burke, Piper & Hochman, plus another $5,000 in various related costs, according to copies of billings obtained by Florida Bulldog.
Nor does it count untold hours spent by City Attorney Alain Boileau’s in-house, salaried staff in defending the lawsuit filed by Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs in January 2015 after the city commission enacted a vague ordinance intended to shut down the feedings and used police to enforce it. It wasn’t until September 2021 that Food Not Bombs finally prevailed when, for the second time, a federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled the city had violated the volunteer group’s rights under the First Amendment.
In December, Fort Lauderdale was also ordered to pay $2,500 each to Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs and its members Nathan Pim, Jillian Pim, Haylee Becker and William Toole. A permanent injunction also prevents the city from denying the group’s “expressive food sharing activities” at city parks.
The local Food Not Bombs is a nonprofit, unincorporated association affiliated with the international advocacy organization Food Not Bombs. It advocates the message that “food is a human right, not a privilege, which society has a responsibility to provide for all.”
FOOD NOT BOMBS LEGAL FEES
The only remaining question: how much the city owes in legal fees and costs to Food Not Bombs’ five attorneys who fought the ordinance in five proceedings and two courtrooms over seven years. One of those attorneys is Fort Lauderdale’s Mara Shlackman.
In February, Gainesville attorney Jodi Siegel, executive director of the nonprofit public interest law firm Southern Legal Counsel, served the city with a draft motion outlining those fees and costs, complete with attached timesheets and declarations in support of their motion.
Siegel declined to comment because she’s in negotiations with the city, and the motion is currently confidential. But here’s a clue as to how much is being sought: the motion is 387 pages.
If no deal is reached, the motion will be filed publicly on March 30. The city will have until mid-April to respond publicly before U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, who sits in Fort Pierce.
The declared mission of Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs, which has been holding feedings at Stranahan Park since 2007, is to “recover and share free vegan or vegetarian food with the public without restriction to protest war and poverty.” Its members continue to share food at the park every Friday at 4:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. “until the last belly is full.”
FIGHTING FOR DECADES
After the city lost another costly legal battle in state court with the late Arnold Abbott in 2000 over his regular feedings of the homeless on the city’s public beachfront, the city passed an ordinance in 2014 that sought to outflank the do-gooders by amending the zoning code to redefine when certain “social service” facilities can be used in public parks, including “outdoor food distribution centers” that are tightly regulated. Applicants for a “conditional use zoning permit” to operate a feeding program in Stranahan Park were required to pay fees that could be as much as $6,000.
There are more than 90 public parks in Fort Lauderdale. All, except Stranahan, “are zoned so that public food-sharing events are not allowed, even by permit,” the appellate panel’s September decision says.
The city enforced the ordinance against church groups and political activists, including Food Not Bombs participants, arresting them for handing out food to homeless people in public places. According to Southern Legal Counsel, “It was part of a package of ordinances criminalizing homelessness that the city adopted in 2014, including ordinances restricting camping and panhandling.”
A year after the lawsuit was filed in 2015, Senior Fort Lauderdale federal Judge William Zloch sided with the city and tossed the lawsuit. In 2018, an 11th circuit court appeals panel reversed Zloch after determining that Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs’ food sharing to be “expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment.” The three-judge panel instructed Zloch to decide whether the city’s regulations actually violated the First Amendment.
In August 2019, Zloch decided there was no violation and again threw out the lawsuit. The legal ping-pong concluded last September with the appellate panel again reversing Zloch, calling the city’s new rules “standardless discretion.”
“The Park Rule bans social service food sharing in Stranahan Park unless authorized pursuant to a written agreement with Fort Lauderdale (the “City”). That’s all the rule says. It provides no guidance and in no way explains when, how, or why the City will agree in writing,” the unanimous panel wrote. “It is neither narrowly drawn to further a substantial government interest that is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, nor, as applied, does it amount to a reasonable time, place, and manner regulation on expression in a public forum.”