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National group's grant will fund lawsuit against St. Pete Beach over development rules

ST. PETE BEACH — The city's long and expensive legal fight over its development rules got the attention — and financial opposition — of a well-known national open government foundation.

The $5,000 grant awarded to attorney Ken Weiss from the Knight Freedom of Information Fund "could invalidate" the March referendum repealing a charter requirement for voter approval for any changes to building height and densities, according to the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Weiss, a Treasure Island resident, has filed multiple lawsuits against the city on behalf of residents who want to stop implementation of a 2008 comprehensive plan approved by voters but later invalidated by Circuit Judge David Demers.

That case and a number of other development-related lawsuits are under appeal, either by the city or by Weiss.

Since 2004, development-related lawsuits have cost the city nearly $1 million and there is still no end in sight.

The grant money will help defray court costs and other expenses to expand a lawsuit Weiss filed against the city in February on behalf of resident Jim Anderson.

Weiss said he is not being paid by his client and won't be unless he wins and the court orders the city to pay his legal fees.

Weiss said Monday that he will be filing new briefs in the Anderson case "shortly."

That case alleges the city violated the state's Sunshine Law during closed door meetings with its attorneys.

Weiss says he discovered in reviewing transcripts of some of those closed meetings what he believes is a pattern violating state law.

"The city has institutionalized the use of shade meetings to discuss and decide controversial issues," Weiss said. "This was done to prevent voters from learning about how and why those decisions were made, leaving the citizens in the dark."

That allegation was sharply rejected Tuesday by City Attorney Mike Davis and Mayor Steve McFarlin.

"He's wrong. The city did not do anything improper," said Davis.

McFarlin says Weiss is on a "personal vendetta" against the city.

"I am disheartened to see this action," McFarlin said. "The people who are really losing in all of this are the residents. I would hope the Florida Bar would step in and stop these lawsuits. We are the victims and it has got to end."

Weiss remains adamant and says he won't stop until the city gets his message.

"The point of all of this from the very beginning is to ensure fair and equitable treatment of the citizens and not one-sided representation of the hotels," he said, stressing the support he has received from disinterested groups.

In March, the First Amendment Foundation Inc. filed an amicus curiae brief in a related appellate case where Weiss is alleging the city violated the state's Sunshine Law.

Weiss applied for the coalition's grant several weeks ago after attending an open government seminar sponsored by the First Amendment Foundation.

He submitted copies of his original lawsuit, transcripts of the City Commission's closed meetings and other "documentation" supporting his claims.

"NFOIC doesn't have a stake in a Florida development squabble. But when a city government tries to use the emotions surrounding such an issue to expand how much public business it can conduct behind closed doors, it gets our attention," said Kenneth Bunting, the coalition's executive director.

The coalition is a nonpartisan group supporting open government based at the Missouri School of Journalism. It administers the Knight FOI Fund, which is part of a $2 million, three-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

"We would not expend Knight FOI Fund resources to stop a beachfront hotel … or take a stance on how tall new developments can be," said Bunting. "But we think those bringing this challenge make a very good argument that the city is stretching the so-called "shade" exception beyond what current law or good government common sense now allows."

National group's grant will fund lawsuit against St. Pete Beach over development rules 07/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 4:50pm]
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