ST. PETE BEACH — Yet another development-related lawsuit was filed against the city last week, this time protesting a $7,721.35 charge levied by the city for providing copies of public records.
At issue is a public records request made Jan. 6 by Ken Weiss, an attorney representing resident Bruce Kadura, who has separately sued the city over the validity of last June's voter referendum on changes to the city's comprehensive plan. The changes were proposed by the citizens group Save Our Little Village.
Weiss asked the city for "any and all e-mails" and all other written documents the city's legal firm, Bryant Miller Olive, has received from or sent to attorneys or other people associated with SOLV between March 1, 2008, and Jan. 6, 2009.
Susan Churuti, one of the city's attorneys, wrote back the next day informing Weiss that his request would entail an "extra administrative fee" to cover the time and effort needed to assemble the documents and "redact" anything relating to the city's legal strategies to defend against Kadura's lawsuit.
The city's attorneys say it will take more than 32 hours of attorney time and 22 hours of staff time to assemble and prepare the documents for Weiss. The cost of the attorney's time is calculated at the same rate charged the city: $205 an hour.
Weiss denies that he ever agreed to pay the attorney's hourly rate. He also maintains that any materials distributed to a party other than city officials are not "privileged" and thus should not require fees for any attorney time. He says he is willing to pay normal copying fees (15 cents per page).
The city's attorneys are equally adamant that he must pay the charge of nearly $8,000.
"Either you are willing to pay the fee for this overbroad public records request or not ... Otherwise, take it up with the judge," Suzanne Van Wyk, an attorney for the city, said Monday in an e-mail to Weiss.
Weiss said he will let the court decide the issue. In his lawsuit he is asking the court to require the city and its attorneys to honor his public records request, impose a fine on the city for violating the state's public records laws, and force the city to pay Weiss' attorneys fees and court costs.
Whatever the resolution of this latest legal spat involving the city and its development regulations, one result is certain: It will again hike the city's escalating legal bills.
In the past five years, more than half of all city money spent on extra-legal fees involves development-related lawsuits — more than $214,000 out of about $400,000 spent since 2004.
For the first quarter of the current fiscal year (October through December), the city has spent more than $80,000 on legal fees above its normal $5,000-a-month retainer.
Most of those fees were incurred to defend lawsuits filed by Weiss and other attorneys for residents who want the voter-approved comprehensive plan and related development regulations tossed out.
If legal fees continue at the current rate, spending on lawsuits will far exceed the $200,000 the city has budgeted for extra-legal fees this year. In fact, after deducting the $80,000 for extra-legal fees billed through December, the city only has about $13,000 a month left to spend through September. December's billing exceeded $20,000.
To put this into perspective, St. Pete Beach reduced its budgeted staff by 18 employees this year, out of the 135 staff positions funded at the beginning of the 2008 fiscal year. Each of those positions cost the city about $60,100 in salaries and benefits.
In other words, at the current rate, the city's lawsuits are costing the annual equivalent of five staff positions.