ST. PETE BEACH — Even though Beverly Garnett is being sued as a member of a political action group, the City Commission decided Monday to pay her legal bills.
"The law is that a commissioner is entitled to be reimbursed for attorney fees that arise out of commission duties," City Attorney Michael Davis said.
He recommended the commission reimburse Garnett for more than $4,000 in legal costs relating to one of the six lawsuits filed against the city and the citizens group Save Our Little Village.
The lawsuit was filed in August 2008 by Bruce Kadoura against the city and SOLV. Kadoura's attorney, Ken Weiss, amended the lawsuit a month later to include five members of SOLV: Garnett, Michael Seimetz, Lorraine Huhn, John H. Penny and Paul Pfister.
"This was done as a harassing tactic against me as a candidate for office," Garnett said in a letter requesting that the city pay legal fees she incurred after the March election.
Before her election, she was officially represented by SOLV's attorney. In April, after she took office as a city commissioner, Davis advised her to hire her own counsel.
On Monday, Davis said Garnett's legal bills were "reasonable" and "arose out of the performance of her official duties as a commissioner." He said Garnett's "defense of that lawsuit served a public purpose."
All three criteria must be met under state law and city policy before a commissioner's legal expenses can be paid by the city.
The Kadoura lawsuit, which has yet to be resolved, seeks to invalidate a June 2008 referendum in which voters approved changes to the city's official Comprehensive Plan and land use regulations.
The city and SOLV are jointly defending against Kadoura's lawsuit, one of six development-related lawsuits filed against the city and SOLV in an effort to negate the referendum vote.
Davis argued that because Garnett's legal defense was identical to the city's, her actions were "consistent with and supportive" of the city's legal position.
He said "it was not in the city's interest" for Garnett to concede to Kadoura's legal challenge.
Davis cautioned the commission that he had received "several e-mails" from Weiss that implied a "threat of litigation" if the commission approved the legal fee reimbursement.
In an emotional outburst, Garnett said Kadoura and other residents who are suing the city are trying to "hold the city hostage" because "they don't like the way the citizens voted."
She said her inclusion in the Kadoura lawsuit and about 13 ethics charges filed against her in Tallahassee relating to her election campaign were all attempts to intimidate her.
"If you do not pay when people are being sued, how many people are you going to get in March to run for office? Zero," Garnett said.
Commissioners Jim Parent and Al Halpern said they would support paying Garnett's legal bills.
"It is crystal clear to me that this is the right thing to do," Parent said.
Only Mayor Michael Finnerty objected, pointing out that Garnett was sued seven months before she was elected to the commission.
"Under these circumstances, I wouldn't give this to my mother," Finnerty said.