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2 St. Pete Beach votes challenged in lawsuit

ST. PETE BEACH — A newly amended lawsuit against the city seeks to reverse both a March referendum and a June commission decision, saying the two votes stemmed from conversations that violated the Sunshine Law.

In the referendum, residents repealed a requirement that voters approve development rules involving height and density.

The June commission decision reinstated a comprehensive plan that had been invalidated by a Circuit Court judge.

At issue is whether those actions were the result of illegal discussions by the commission during private meetings with their attorneys.

Closed meetings are allowed under the state's Sunshine Law, but discussions are restricted to setting strategy to defend or pursue legal action, related costs, and settlement offers.

"The city and the commissioners repeatedly and intentionally violated the Sunshine Law," attorney Ken Weiss wrote in an amendment to a lawsuit he originally filed in February on behalf of resident Jim Anderson.

The amended lawsuit, filed Friday, now asks the Circuit Court to find that the alleged Sunshine Law violations void all subsequent related decisions and actions taken by the commission, even in public meetings.

The legal action was partially funded, according to Weiss, by a grant from the Knight Foundation's Freedom of Information Fund.

An earlier intervention by the First Amendment Foundation involved a related Sunshine Law violation case filed against the city. That case is now under review by the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

In the Anderson case, Weiss is asking the court to invalidate the charter change by voters and reverse the unanimous commission vote reinstating a comprehensive plan previously approved by voters. That referendum had been invalidated by Circuit Judge David Demers, who found that the referendum ballot summary did not properly describe the issues.

"Any decisions made in any shade meetings are presumptively void and any actions which flowed from such decisions are also void," Weiss said.

Among the improper topics Weiss said commissioners discussed during the closed sessions with their attorneys were how to protect them from legal challenges when and if they ran for re-election; keeping secret from the public a decision to lobby for a special law until it passed the Legislature; whether the city's law firm, Bryant Miller Olive, planned to increase its fees; how to get around a ruling invalidating a voter-approved comprehensive plan; and how to convince the public that the lawsuits were effectively legal harassment.

City Manager Mike Bonfield reacted strongly Friday to news of the expanded lawsuit.

"This is just a continuation of their strategy to make us spend money on legal fees and then criticizing us for spending money to defend ourselves against their legal actions," Bonfield said. "This is political."

Factions in the city have been fighting for more than a decade over what kind of development would ensure economic growth while protecting the large residential community.

Building height and density were and are at the core of the dispute.

In recent years, the political pendulum swung away from more restrictive regulations toward allowing greater commercial and hotel redevelopment.

Mayor Steve McFarlin said Weiss represents a "dwindling number of supporters" and is pursuing a "personal agenda" against the city.

But, while several citywide elections have created a more pro-hotel government, and previous restrictions on the powers of that government have been set aside, the lawsuits still facing the city indicate the battle is not over.

2 St. Pete Beach votes challenged in lawsuit 09/17/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 5:07pm]
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