DUNEDIN — Lawyers are investigating whether the BP oil spill cost Dunedin taxpayers tourism dollars and whether that warrants a lawsuit.
On Thursday, city commissioners hired the law firm Motley Rice LLC to explore the feasibility of pursuing a claim over the April 2010 spill, in which the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and for more than 85 days spewed an estimated 172 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The South Carolina firm, which has filed claims on behalf of other Pinellas County cities including Madeira Beach and Clearwater, will work with Dunedin City Attorney Tom Trask, city finance employees and a private accounting firm to review Dunedin revenue and expense levels in the years before and after the spill.
Within 30 days, the attorneys will present a claim, in hopes that BP will settle. If BP declines, lawyers would again come before city leaders seeking permission to file a lawsuit.
Trask said he believes Dunedin has a "good possibility" of recovery.
"They were just absolutely amazed that after you do the analysis that they did have a possible claim and it was substantial," Trask said of other cities he represents, which initially resisted allowing Motley Rice to investigate. "I think you need to do it at a minimum just to determine if there was a loss."
Congress' Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed after the Exxon Valdez spill, gives local governments three years to file suit and says governments must allow entities 90 days' notice in case the oil company wants to settle. Lawyers expect BP will interpret the deadline to seek settlements as having been Jan. 18. But Motley Rice attorney Kevin Dean told commissioners his firm believes the court will allow cities to file the settlement claims any time within the three-year statute of limitations.
Local governments so far have sought settlements ranging from $3 million to $45 million, Dean said.
"I feel that if Congress has provided a mechanism that allows you to recover, whether or not you think it's a long shot, I think it's frankly prudent to pursue it. It's silly not to," said Commissioner Julie Scales.
Commissioner Ron Barnette, noting international headlines about panicked tourists avoiding the entire state, said that while the spill didn't physically touch Dunedin's border, "it did hit economically. ... I don't think (recovery is) a long shot at all."
Mayor Dave Eggers and Vice Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski appeared more cautious, agreeing only after receiving assurance from Trask about the firm's qualifications and commissioners' opportunity to review preliminary information before deciding whether to move forward.
Both Trask and Dean said their firms would work on a contingency basis, receiving compensation only if the city prevailed in court. Motley Rice's cut would be 25 percent of the award amount.
In other news ...
•City Manager Rob DiSpirito was told during his sixth annual evaluation that he's doing a great job but needs to stop working so hard. Commissioners fear he'll burn out.
Echoing comments from last year, commissioners told DiSpirito they appreciated his creative approach to balancing the city's budget, continued accessibility to staff and residents, and upbeat attitude on the dais. They politely scolded him, though, about continuing to receive his late-night emails. He annually gives up about two of five weeks of allotted vacation.
In an effort to keep up with best practices that might benefit the city, commissioners encouraged DiSpirito this year to attend at least one industry conference, which he has foregone due to an out-of-state travel ban.
DiSpirito also received a 1 percent raise, consistent with those handed out to all city employees in October.
•The Dunedin Youth Guild donated $200,000 to build a playground at Weaver Park. In a nod to renowned entomologist Willis Blatchley, whose home still stands inside the park, the playground will feature insect- and bird-shaped equipment and nature-themed educational signage. City staff expects to present price quotes to the commission next month and complete installation in time for the city's summer camp.