ST. PETE BEACH — The City Commission gave its attorneys a strong vote of confidence Tuesday for their handling of the development-related lawsuits filed against the city.
At the same time, the commission rejected a citizen petition to audit the firm's billing and a request from opposing attorney Ken Weiss for transcripts of closed meetings.
Several days later, Weiss filed several new motions in Circuit Court seeking monetary sanctions against the city's law firm, Bryant Miller Olive, for what he claims is "inequitable conduct."
Those motions, as well as previously filed motions calling for sanctions against the firm, are based largely on transcripts of discussions between the commission, City Manager Mike Bonfield and the city's attorneys in closed sessions.
"He will just come back at us for something else," objected Commissioner Bev Garnett. "The litigation is not done on those cases. I am not inclined to let him know what we were thinking at the time. The discussions were private and should stay there."
By law, transcripts of closed meetings become public record only after related legal actions are resolved.
The city's law firm is increasingly a target in the unending wars over regulations governing future development and redevelopment.
Since 2004, the city has spent nearly $1 million defending against development-related legal challenges.
Several weeks ago, resident Maria Urban submitted a petition with more than 100 signatures demanding that the commission hire an outside law firm to audit city attorneys' billing.
"It seems this law firm is not making any effort to minimize its expenses," Urban told the commission Tuesday. "Over a million dollars in legal fees is appalling."
The entire commission defended the law firm, pointing to their efforts to minimize or eliminate actions that would require additional billing.
Commissioner Marvin Shavlan said Urban, as well as other signatories to the petition, "sued the city and lost. It cost the city $87,576, and that kind of bothers me."
Shavlan and Garnett suggested that if people are concerned about the city's legal bills, they should "stop suing the city."
Commissioner Al Halpern said the petition represents only about 1.5 percent of the city population.
"This is just part of trying to stir up some dissension between our law firm and us," Mayor Steve McFarlin said.
"I give you guys a vote of confidence," Commissioner Jim Parent, with the quick agreement of the rest of the commission, told City Attorney Mike Davis.
Parent said the law firm's billing is appropriate and is "a good value."
Weiss thinks otherwise. In his latest motions, he claims that city attorneys made arguments in Circuit Court they knew were "patently false and misleading."
Because the law firm withheld "critical facts," Weiss said, his clients and city taxpayers were forced to spend "tens of thousands of dollars" in trial preparation, trial costs, and written arguments and motions.
He wants the city's attorneys, not the city, to pay the legal fees incurred by his clients, Bill Pyle and Bruce Kadoura, part of which will be returned to taxpayers.
"I believe it is illegal for attorneys to bill for matters which are solely their responsibility and for city officials to knowingly use taxpayer funds to pay for the defense of their attorneys when there is no chance that the city would have any liability for sanctions," Weiss said.
Davis could not be reached for comment.