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St. Pete Beach releases transcripts of private meetings

ST. PETE BEACH — The city has released more than 600 pages of transcripts from "shade" meetings commissioners conducted with their attorneys to work out issues relating to a slew of lawsuits filed over land use and development.

If nothing else, the documents reveal a careful attempt by lawyers to keep officials within the boundaries of permitted discussions that the closed-door sessions allow.

"The transcripts always eventually become public record," City Attorney Mike Davis said Tuesday. "If we do something wrong, it will come back and bite you."

The transcripts cover seven closed sessions, called shade meetings, between the commission, City Manager Mike Bonfield and the city's attorneys over nearly the past two years.

They were released partly as the result of a lawsuit filed last month by resident Jim Anderson, who alleges city officials violated the Sunshine Law during those meetings by discussing matters outside limited areas set by state law.

Davis admits that because the city is faced with so many lawsuits, there is little the commission cannot talk about.

"Legal strategy does involve a whole lot of issues that will need to be acted on later in public meetings," he said.

At the beginning of nearly each meeting, the city attorneys remind the commission of the narrow area they can legally discuss in a nonpublic meeting.

"We are allowed to meet in these executive sessions with respect to pending litigation for two purposes," Susan Churuti, one of the city's attorneys, explained during a January shade meeting. "One, to discuss possible settlement and/or to discuss litigation strategy as it relates to litigation expenditures."

In one 2009 shade meeting, Davis had to stop Commissioner Bev Garnett from talking about an issue relating to a Pass-a-Grille hotel that was going to be considered in a public meeting.

The issue was controversial, but no lawsuit was involved.

"You can't talk about that," Davis said.

During a Nov. 10, 2010, shade meeting Churuti cautioned the commission that other government bodies "have gotten into trouble" by going beyond the scope of permitted legal discussions.

Later in that meeting, Churuti and Davis stressed that the commission's discussion over referendum questions on the March ballot is "just talking about litigation strategy" and "so there could be no argument that you somehow made the decision illegally in the shade meeting."

In that same meeting, the attorneys talked at length about how they hoped to keep fees at a reasonable level in the future.

They currently charge the city $205 an hour for litigation work, an amount Churuti said is $55 less that their firm, Bryant Miller Olive, charges other government clients.

"It's not being received well by our business partners," Churuti said.

Such discussion is allowed in shade meetings, Davis said, because it involves the cost of litigation.

The same argument applies, apparently, to a discussion about Churuti's plans to "protect" the commissioners if they were sued or had ethics charges filed against them relating to the recent election.

Commissioner Jim Parent was re-elected without opposition, and Commissioner Beverly Garnett defeated challenger and former Commissioner Harry Metz. The four-way race for mayor was reduced to two candidates — Mayor Mike Finnerty and challenger Steve McFarlin — who will face voters in an April 19 runoff election.

"Somehow between when you qualify for your offices and when you get elected, we anticipate some kind of election challenge will be filed against those three offices. Not a surprise. We can be ready to look at that," said Churuti.

Parts of the transcripts were blacked out; other shade meeting transcripts have yet to be released.

Most of the legal actions against the city relate to the 2008 referendum election on the city's comprehensive plan and land development regulations.

Until just a few weeks ago, changes to those plans relating to height, intensity or density had to be approved by voters.

But voters gave up that right in the March 8 election, allowing the commission to set the city's future development rules.

That end result was the subject of many shade meeting discussions during the past year as the commission sought some way to end what they saw as endless lawsuits that, to date, have cost the city nearly a million dollars in legal bills.

"A lot of these issues will now become moot," Davis said.

Davis plans to ask Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's opinion on the direction the city should take to end many of the development-related lawsuits and whether the state needs to reapprove the city's comprehensive plan.

St. Pete Beach releases transcripts of private meetings 03/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 4:54pm]
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