ST. PETE BEACH — Talks to end costly development-related lawsuits against the city collapsed Saturday when a court-appointed mediator declared an impasse.
The result is that the city's legal fees — already at more than $250,000 for legal actions relating to city development wars that started in 2005 — will continue to mount as the city defends itself in court against several of its own residents.
"I am extremely disappointed to report that after spending tens of thousands of dollars and considerable staff time … impasse has been declared," City Manager Mike Bonfield said in an e-mail to the City Commission.
Last year, residents Dr. Bill Pyle and Bruce Kadura sued the city, Mayor Mike Finnerty and members of the citizen's group, Save Our Little Village, to challenge a voter referendum last year that changed the city's comprehensive plan and land development regulations.
The parties to the six separate lawsuits spent about 140 hours in at least four meetings and several teleconferences last month.
Last week, a tentative settlement agreement was reached and passed back and forth among the parties in an attempt to reach a final consensus.
Late Friday night those efforts continued.
But Saturday, Bonfield said attorney Ken Weiss informed mediator Carlos Alvarez that his clients would not sign the mediation agreement.
As a result, Alvarez declared an official impasse.
Weiss would not comment on the cause of the impasse beyond saying "everybody was there in good faith and made a good-faith effort."
He indicated that talks with the city might continue.
"I know that the city made a genuine effort to resolve the ongoing litigation and that we now have no choice other than to defend the city," Commissioner Christopher Leonard said in an e-mail to Bonfield upon learning that talks had deadlocked.
Bonfield said he and his staff spent more than 300 hours in the meetings and preparing for them.
At least one, and sometimes several, of the city's attorneys, who charge the city $205 an hour per attorney, attended the 140 hours of direct mediation and spent additional time preparing for the talks.
Bonfield said the city has not received a bill, but he expects it to reach at least $50,000.
In addition, the mediator charged $25,000 for his services — a bill that will be split among the city, SOLV, Pyle and Kadura.
"I believe we were extremely reasonable in what was being offered, but I am now convinced more than ever that some of the individuals involved are not interested in moving the city forward," Bonfield said in his e-mail.
He suggested in his e-mail that Pyle and Kadura "desire to continue purchasing their influence on City policy-making through the use and threat of the legal system due to their inability to convince the community of their beliefs through the normal political process."
Under the rules of the mediation, the parties are prohibited from discussing the substance of the talks or releasing any of the proposed agreements unless all agree to waive confidentiality.
None have done so.
Bonfield said the city's representatives conducted themselves in a "reasonable and professional manner throughout this often agonizing process."
Bonfield has scheduled a closed meeting with the commission and the city's attorneys at 3 p.m. Friday to discuss what will happen next.
During mediation, all legal activity by all parties to the lawsuits was halted. Presumably, the court fight will now continue.