ST. PETE BEACH — With no end in sight for six lawsuits over the city's development rules and regulations, the City Commission met in private Monday to plot a strategy for winning in court.
"Sorry we could not see eye to eye to bring this to a conclusion," one of the city's attorneys, Suzanne Van Wyk, said in an recent e-mail to Ken Weiss, the attorney for residents William Pyle, Bruce Kadoura and Richard McCormick. The residents are suing both the city and the citizen's group Save Our Little Village. SOLV won voter approval last summer for changes to the city's Comprehensive Plan, which are now in effect.
Monthslong negotiations to settle the lawsuits ended when the sides could not agree on the structure of a proposed Bridge to the Future Advisory Committee. Ironically, the proposed committee would have had no real power.
By not responding by the city's deadline, Weiss had effectively rejected not only the city's version of the committee membership, but what the city said was its final settlement offer.
Two different versions of the controversial Bridge to the Future Advisory Committee were proposed by the plaintiffs and by the city.
"We felt as long as the committee was advisory, it provided an outlet for some of the emotions on issues and created a positive place for dialogue," said SOLV's attorney, Robert Lincoln. SOLV supported both versions of the plan.
"There is considerable opposition from the residents to any effort to turn over primary control of a city committee to two political action committees, or their waning former membership," Van Wyk said in a formal letter to Weiss.
She also criticized Weiss for repeatedly trying to "place blame for the failures of these negotiations."
In a three-page letter later delivered to the city Friday, Weiss charged that the commission violated the state's Sunshine law by deciding to reject the proposed settlement during a closed session called to discuss settlement offers presented to the city with city attorneys.
He demanded that the commission provide transcripts of all its closed meetings by Monday.
Van Wyk said Weiss' charges were "false" and that transcripts would not be provided to Weiss "until the litigation is concluded."
"To throw everything away, all this money we spent for the settlement, the mediation, it's a crying shame," Mayor Michael Finnerty said upon learning negotiations had fallen apart again.
Commissioner Christopher Leonard said the commission's call for equal representation on the committee was a principal that could not be ignored.
"I talked to more than 100 residents and got a tremendous amount of push-back. They said they felt so strongly about equality, and they are willing to pay legal costs if we cannot reach an agreement," Leonard said.
So far, the city has spent more than $300,000 on legal costs associated with the lawsuits, a failed mediation and ongoing negotiations.
Commissioner Bev Garnett, who was a vocal member of SOLV before her election to the commission, said she is frustrated over the failed negotiations.
"We tried the best we could to put the city back together," she said.