MADEIRA BEACH — Former Commissioner Art Thomas is $37,113.42 "richer."
After two years of debate, the City Commission decided Tuesday to reimburse Thomas for legal bills he paid to defend himself against a defamation lawsuit.
It all began in 2006 when Thomas was sued by former planning board member Kevin Connolly, Robert Shaw, Karen Martin, Steve Truels, Len Piotti, Art and Carol Broaderick, George Gonzalez, Marilyn Maginley and current Mayor Pat Shontz and her husband, George.
The residents claimed that Thomas had defamed them in a letter published in a local newspaper and on the Internet. Thomas called the residents a "small radical group" who used "threats or pressure to make me come around to their way of thinking."
Thomas' letter was in response to a letter written by Connolly that accused Thomas of being "disinterested in the feelings of citizens" and that said he was a "wolf" who had "removed his sheep's clothing."
Thomas' letter, the residents contended, was "willful, intentional and malicious" by accusing them of committing a felony by allegedly threatening a public official. Thomas had damaged their reputations by holding them up to "public scorn, hatred and ridicule," the residents claimed.
A year later, Circuit Judge Frank Quesada ruled that Thomas had acted within his rights as an elected official in writing the letter to the newspaper — and that Thomas had absolute immunity from lawsuits under both state law and Florida Supreme Court rulings.
In August, the 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld Quesada's ruling, declaring that a lower trial court acted properly in dismissing the case against Thomas.
Throughout the legal battle, Thomas was forced to pay his own legal bills.
The reason? A majority of the 2006 City Commission, led by then-Mayor Charles Parker, refused to defend its fellow member — despite their own attorney's opinion that the city had an obligation to pay legal fees and court costs.
After the Circuit Court ruling, Thomas again asked the city for financial help, but was rejected by the commission when the city's legal insurance carrier rejected the claim because the city had not notified the firm of the lawsuit soon enough.
In October, City Attorney Michael Connolly (no relation to Kevin Connolly) again told the commission it should pay Thomas for his legal expenses.
"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," Connolly said.
On Tuesday, the commission finally agreed, voting unanimously to reimburse Thomas' legal bills.
Only Mayor Shontz, one of those who sued Thomas, did not vote, turning the gavel over to Vice Mayor Steve Kochick and leaving the dais.
With check in hand and safely in the bank, Thomas and his wife celebrated by going out to dinner.
"The one good thing about all of this is that those who decided to take this evil path won't get their money back," Thomas said.
In fact, the city or its insurance company may go after the 11 residents who sued Thomas to get the city's money back.