Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Who is in charge during a hurricane? Hillsborough County and Tampa still can't agree


    TAMPA — Who has the authority to order an evacuation during a hurricane?

    Mayor Bob Buckhorn says he has evacuation authority.
  2. Gators rally past Kentucky, streak hits 31


    LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the second week in a row, Florida found itself storming the field in a game that came down to the last second. A 57-yard field-goal attempt by Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis came just a few feet short of making history and snapping a 30-year losing streak, as the No. 20 Gators escaped a …

    Florida wide receiver Brandon Powell (4) scores a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kentucky, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Lexington, Ky.
  3. Pen makes it way too interesting as Rays hang on for 9-6 win


    A couple of home runs provided the news pegs of the night for the Rays, but it was more topical to talk about what nearly happened as they hung on for a 9-6 win over the Orioles.

    Lucas Duda's three-run homer in the third inning was the Rays' record-breaking 217th of the season, as well as his …

  4. An attempt to project what Rays will look like in 2018

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — We know what the Rays look like this year: a team that had enough talent but too many flaws, in construction and performance, and in the next few days will be officially eliminated from a wild-card race it had a chance to win but let slip away.

    Adeiny Hechavarria, high-fiving Lucas Duda, seems likely to be brought back.
  5. Trump fallout: Bucs' DeSean Jackson to make 'statement' Sunday


    Bucs receiver DeSean Jackson said Saturday that he will make a "statement" before today's game against the Vikings in response to President Donald Trump's comment that owners should "fire" players who kneel in protest during the national anthem.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson (11) makes a catch during the first half of an NFL game between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.