TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioners voted Wednesday to seek financial reimbursement from a Plant City winery owner who filed a failed ethics complaint against one of their own.
In a 6-1 vote, the county board petitioned the Florida Ethics Commission to rule that the winery owner, Joe Keel, should pay for Commissioner Al Higginbotham's legal fees. If the ethics commission deems Keel's complaint malicious and politically motivated, Keel could be on the hook for up to $15,000; if not, county taxpayers would have to cover the bill.
Keel alleged that Higginbotham used his clout as commissioner to prevent his winery from brewing and selling beer. Already the ethics panel said Keel's complaint was unfounded.
"It's not unusual in a lawsuit that the loser pays," Commissioner Victor Crist said. "It's a way to police frivolous lawsuits."
Commissioner Kevin Beckner pushed an amendment that would require Hillsborough to pay back Keel's legal fees if the ethics panel rules against the county. While he supported seeking reimbursement, Beckner said he was concerned that the board was creating a "double standard" that could "stifle a citizen's concern for bringing forward a just complaint."
But the amendment failed, and Beckner in turn voted against the petition.
Higginbotham's attorney L.T. Lafferty said he hopes the ethics panel will take up the dispute on June 6.
In other action:
Commissioners approved four finalists in their search for a new executive director of the Environmental Protection Commission.
Rick Tschantz, general counsel for the EPC, and Mary Yeargan, director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Southwest District, were the top two choices of the selection committee. But the committee's third choice, EPC wetlands director Scott Emery, abruptly removed himself from consideration Tuesday.
In his place, commissioners selected Robert Musser, environmental projects manager for Port Everglades, and Janet Dougherty, executive for an environmental consulting firm.
Musser initially tied with Emery during the selection committee's vote last week. His addition was not debated.
But the inclusion of Dougherty, who finished fifth in the selection committee's vote, concerned several commissioners. She moved forward Wednesday on a narrow 4-3 vote.
"That's damaging the process," said Commissioner Les Miller, who also serves as EPC chairman.
But Commissioner Victor Crist said the board needed to consider more candidates with private sector experience.
The board also moved forward a plan to increase stormwater fees, the first hike in decades.
County officials recommended that commissioners triple the fees to help eliminate a $200 million backlog, including $60 million in repairs to aging pipes.
Instead, the board settled on a 150 percent increase. In dollars, the annual fee for a home will increase from $12 to $30. Apartment complexes will pay $15 per unit.
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or @scontorno.