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Legal bill hangover still haunts St. Pete Beach

ST. PETE BEACH — Elections do change things, but sometimes they don't.

This city's long-fought political wars over development regulations may be largely over, but battles over those same issues are still being fought in court.

Most recently, a resident is seeking financial sanctions to be placed against the city's attorneys. The 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland ordered the city to respond by Monday.

Dr. William Pyle is asking the court to punish the city's attorneys for what he says is legal misconduct by forcing the city and its law firm to pay Pyle's legal costs.

Pyle has filed multiple lawsuits with the aim of restricting hotel development on the city's beaches.

In this particular case, the lower court ruled against the city and the city is now appealing that ruling.

Last year, Circuit Judge David Demers ruled that a 2008 referendum changing the city's comprehensive plan was effectively invalid because the ballot language "misled voters" when it did not state that some building heights would be changed.

According to Pyle's attorney, Ken Weiss, city attorneys "intentionally misrepresented a crucial fact" to both the Circuit Court and District Court of Appeal when they argued the city's comprehensive plan is not a land development regulation and therefore did not fall under the charter requirement for a voter referendum on building height.

"That statement of law and fact is false," Weiss said in his motion, citing transcripts of a closed door commission meeting last May.

Weiss says the transcript shows that Suzanne Van Wyk, one of the city's attorneys, and City Manager Mike Bonfield believed that the vote did, in fact, involve the building height issue — specifically, that the 2008 comprehensive plan vote negated the need to have another vote on land development regulations that implemented those height changes.

One issue not addressed in Weiss' motion is the legal impact of the March referendum, when city voters repealed the charter requirement for voter approval of future building height changes.

Also unclear, is the legal status of the comprehensive plan approved by voters in 2008.

City officials say it is in effect, but are warning developers that it is being challenged in court.

Meanwhile, the city's legal bills continue to mount.

Other outstanding legal actions relating to the comprehensive plan and 2008 referendum include an appeal by resident Bruce Kadoura, who lost his claim in lower court that the commission violated the Sunshine Law during closed-door sessions with attorneys; appeals by both the city and Kadoura of portions of a lower court ruling on the comprehensive plan referendum; and a circuit court challenge by resident Jim Anderson charging the commission violated the Sunshine Law when it discussed its attorneys' billing rates during a closed meeting.

Since 2004, the city spent more than $600,000 on development-related legal issues.

Just since last October, the city spent more than $108,000 defending against such lawsuits.

In March alone, development-related lawsuits cost the city more than $32,000 — or about 80 percent of the latest bill submitted to the city by its legal firm, Bryant Miller Olive. The firm's regular monthly retainer for nonlitigation legal work is $5,000.

Mayor Steve McFarlin acknowledged Monday that the city's legal bills are a burden for taxpayers.

"We have to get a better handle on this. It is such a large percentage of our overall expenses," McFarlin said. "We need more transparency, so we know where our money is going, and what these cases are actually costing residents."

Legal bill hangover still haunts St. Pete Beach 05/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 6:13pm]
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