ST. PETE BEACH — The City Commission gave its attorneys multiple votes of confidence last week, brushing aside attempts by one of its members to rein in mounting legal costs.
The commission met Tuesday for more than an hour with Susan Churuti and Suzanne Van Wyk, both attorneys with the city's law firm, Bryant Miller Olive.
The meeting was called at the request of Commissioner Linda Chaney, who has repeatedly criticized the law firm's legal bills.
Chaney said defending the "rights of voters" while staying within budget are now "almost opposing goals." She particularly criticized monthly legal bills of $30,000 or more.
Most of the legal costs involve five separate lawsuits filed by Bill Pyle and others who are contesting the legality of the referendum in June when a majority of voters approved new development rules proposed by the political action group, Save Our Little Village. Pyle is a major financial supporter of Citizens for Responsible Growth, a political action group that opposed the SOLV plan.
The commission debated at length turning over the lead role in defending one or more lawsuits against the city to attorneys for SOLV, or postponing litigation on other lawsuits.
"Unless they are willing to drop their lawsuits, I don't see any benefit to changing attorneys. I want the very best to defend the rights of the citizens and the sanctity of the vote," said Mayor Mike Finnerty, adding that the law firm "is the best we have had."
When Commissioner Christopher Leonard asked the attorneys to give the commission direction on cost-cutting, Van Wyk was blunt.
"We ought to be trusted to manage these cases," she said. "I am upset that opposing council has managed to get you involved to this extent."
She asked the commission to report any contact from attorneys who are suing the city. "They are under obligation not to communicate with you without our permission," she said.
In the end, the commission voted 3-2 (Chaney and Commissioner Harry Metz opposed) against allowing SOLV to take a leading role in one of the cases. Chaney then joined a 4-1 majority in supporting Van Wyk in continuing her legal work for the city. The commission unanimously approved instructing its attorneys to expedite a pending state hearing of the city's comprehensive plan.