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Former Madeira Beach commissioner waits for city to pay legal fees

Art Thomas is owed legal fees by the city after being sued in 2006.

Art Thomas is owed legal fees by the city after being sued in 2006.

MADEIRA BEACH — Former Commissioner Art Thomas is waiting for the city to reimburse more than $37,000 in legal fees he paid to defend himself against a defamation lawsuit.

That lawsuit was filed against Thomas in 2006 by 11 residents, including the current mayor, Pat Shontz.

Thomas' 2-year legal battle ended in August when the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that a lower trial court acted properly in dismissing the case against Thomas.

Now he wants the city to pay his legal bills — something until now the city has refused to do.

"I am upset. They (the City Commission) violated my rights and now they want me to wait? They are playing games. They should have paid my legal bills from the beginning," Thomas said Tuesday.

Two weeks ago, City Attorney Michael Connolly told the commission they are obligated to pay Thomas' legal fees, but did not ask for formal action.

Connolly said he was waiting for copies of Thomas' lawyer's invoices before bringing the matter back to the commission, probably in December.

"I made very clear (in 2006) that I felt the commissioner (Thomas) had absolute immunity and the city had an obligation to provide a defense," the city attorney reminded the commission earlier this month.

The attorney said the city could pay the amount outright, ask its insurance company to cover Thomas' fees, or ask Thomas to allow the city to sue the 11 residents to recover the legal costs.

"How do we deal with the mayor on this?" asked Commissioner Steve Kochick.

"What do you mean?" responded Connolly.

Kochick then explained that Shontz and her husband were among the residents who sued Thomas. Shontz was not mayor at the time.

"I didn't know that. That would definitely be a conflict," Connolly said.

Thomas said Tuesday he is angry over the delay in the city meeting its obligation to him.

For two years, Thomas has paid his legal bills out of his own pocket after the then-commission refused to pay for his defense.

The residents who sued Thomas in 2006 claimed he had defamed them in a letter that was published in a local newspaper and on the Internet. He called the residents a "small radical group" who used "threats or pressure to make me come around to their way of thinking."

At the time, Thomas was responding to an earlier letter published by the same newspaper. That letter, written by former planning board member Kevin Connolly, accused Thomas of being "disinterested in the feelings of citizens."

Kevin Connolly (no relation to the city attorney) called Thomas a "wolf" who had "removed his sheep's clothing".

Thomas subsequently was sued by Kevin Connolly, Pat and George Shontz, Robert Show, Karen Martin, Steve Truels, Len Piotti, Art and Carol Broaderick, George Gonzalez and Marilyn Maginley.

The group claimed Thomas' action was "willful, intentional and malicious," accused them of committing a felony by allegedly threatening a public official, and damaged their reputations by holding them up to "public scorn, hatred and ridicule".

The individual lawsuits, which each sought more than $15,000 in punitive damages, were later combined and heard by Circuit Court Judge Frank Quesada.

A year later, Quesada ruled that, in writing the letter to the newspaper, Thomas had acted within his rights as an elected official and that Thomas had absolute immunity from lawsuits under both state law and Florida Supreme Court rulings.

The group then unsuccessfully appealed that decision.

Former Madeira Beach commissioner waits for city to pay legal fees 10/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 10:14pm]
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