ST. PETE BEACH — With less than $16,000 remaining in its $200,000 budget for extra legal fees, the city is likely to go over that budget with five months left in the fiscal year and several lawsuits yet unresolved.
A major trial over land use issues is scheduled to begin in August and several other lawsuits could end up at trial later this year or next year.
On Tuesday, the City Commission agreed to meet in three separate closed sessions with its attorneys this month.
The closed meetings will enable the commission to discuss six lawsuits relating to the new and controversial comprehensive plan approved by voters in 2008, a lawsuit filed by two residents over city rules for elevating existing structures, and a lawsuit filed by another resident charging that the city has illegally taken his private beachfront property.
"As you can see, we are going to be busy," City Attorney Susan Churuti told the commission Tuesday.
The first closed or "shade" meeting will be at 4:30 p.m. on May 11 to discuss the comprehensive plan lawsuits, the scheduled August trial, and any possible settlement the commission may consider offering residents Bill Pyle, Bruce Kadoura and Richard McCormick.
Ken Weiss, the attorney for the three residents, is offering the city a chance to end all of the comprehensive plan lawsuits, as well as a related lawsuit filed by former Commissioner Harry Metz challenging the city over legal fees it paid for sitting Commissioner Beverly Garnett.
In exchange for dismissing the lawsuits, Weiss is asking the city to agree to hold another election on the comprehensive plan amendments that voters approved in 2008.
This time, however, he wants the ballot language to plainly state that a "yes" vote would mean allowing building heights in certain zoning districts to increase to 146 feet and densities to increase to 80 units per acre.
Judge David Demers, who is presiding over all the comprehensive plan cases, said in a recent ruling that if Kadoura can prove he is legally qualified to sue the city over the plan, then such an election would be required under existing law.
Four out of seven issues decided by Demers in that ruling favored the city.
Weiss argues that the city could save the cost of potentially multiple trials by settling the lawsuit now.
"Failure to conclude these matters by settlement will only lead to another $150,000 of taxpayer funded legal costs and will extend the years of uncertainty. It is time to bring these matters to an end," Weiss said in his letter to the city attorneys.
The city's balance in its legal defense budget is $15,927.64. As to how the city will pay for the cost of continuing the legal fights, officials could tap the $850,000 general fund balance or cut back on other spending.