ST. PETE BEACH — As yet another development-related lawsuit is filed against the city, at least one commissioner is "fed up" with mounting legal fees and wants to ask voters to give up their right to review future development plans.
The rest of the commission appears to agree with newly elected Commissioner Marvin Shavlan and on July 13 will debate putting a referendum question on the Nov. 2 ballot to change the city charter. If the city decides to ask voters to rescind their right to approve or reject comprehensive plan changes, it will appear on the same ballot as the controversial Amendment 4 to the state Constitution.
The city's charter currently requires voter approval of any changes in "density or intensity of uses or height of structures" or changes to land use categories affecting five parcels or more.
The proposed state Constitutional amendment is the result of efforts by Florida Hometown Democracy, a group that argues the amendment "will give voters oversight control over how their communities grow."
In contrast to the city's charter, Amendment 4 calls for all changes to comprehensive plans, including those affecting even one parcel of property, to be first ratified by voters. Also, if Amendment 4 to the state Constitution is passed statewide in November, it will prevail, no matter what the city charter says.
St. Pete Beach officials warn Amendment 4 also will lead to myriad lawsuits. The city has been forced to defend a series of lawsuits filed by residents opposed to the result of a 2008 voter referendum on changes to the city's comprehensive plan.
"I am fed up. Obviously this Hometown Democracy form of government is not working in St. Pete Beach," Shavlan said Tuesday as he urged the commission to ask voters to remove the charter requirement.
"We have a comprehensive plan but nobody is going to build anything of substance because of the lawsuits. They are afraid to," Shavlan added. "We need to send a message to the voters of Florida that Hometown Democracy does not work."
The latest lawsuit was filed just last week and charges the city violated the state's Sunshine Law when the commission met privately with its attorneys last summer to review proposed settlement agreements.
"In this most critical moment, in what should have been a public debate, the Commission acted in secret. It debated. It considered. It rejected. It proposed. It decided. All of those actions were an attempt by the City's elected officials to hide their views in the shade of the public meeting exemption. The Commission made decisions clearly required to be made in the Sunshine,'' attorney Ken Weiss argued in the lawsuit.
Weiss' client, Bruce Kadoura, wants the city to make public the transcripts of the commission's closed meetings relating to settlement discussions.
Judge David Demers, who is also presiding over the other lawsuits filed by Weiss for clients Bill Pyle, Kadoura and Richard McCormick, will consider Weiss' demands at a hearing at 5 p.m. July 15.
Tuesday, City Attorney Mike Davis said he did not believe Weiss' latest lawsuit "has any merit." Trials will be held in August and September on other lawsuits filed by Weiss' clients.
Voter approval of changing the city charter to remove the requirement for referendum votes on the comprehensive plan would put the city in a "better position legally," according to Davis.
Shavlan hopes such a vote would make the lawsuits moot and end the city's escalating legal bills.
The city will spend some $300,000, mostly on the Weiss lawsuits this year. More than $200,000 is tentatively budgeted for extra legal fees for the 2010-2011 fiscal year.
And, according to Commissioner Jim Parent, the city has spent "almost $1 million" on legal bills since 2006, when the city charter amendment was approved by voters.