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Sunshine Law flap erupts over Biltmore roof repair fine

BELLEAIR — Questions are swirling about the way Belleair's code enforcement board handled an issue involving the historic Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa.

The resort owner's attorney, George Rahdert, has already cried foul about the board's decision Monday to fine the owner $250 a day if it doesn't fix the hotel's dilapidated roof.

And Mayor Gary Katica joined the fray at Tuesday's town commission meeting, saying he saw evidence that some board members may have violated the state's Sunshine Law, an assertion that board members denied.

Katica also was disturbed that, during the meeting, a new board member asked if the hotel would provide certain benefits for the Belleair Country Club and neighbors if the town rescinded the fine.

Latitude Management Real Estate Investors, formerly known as Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, bought the 112-year-old hotel in 2007 with plans for a $100 million full-scale makeover.

"If there was any indication that they violated the Sunshine Law, the entire decision is null and void," said Rahdert, who also represents the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues.

The Sunshine Law restricts government officials from doing public business outside of public view.

Town Manager Micah Maxwell said he saw two board members talking after the meeting and wasn't sure what they were talking about. He told them they shouldn't be talking about code board business.

Katica, who attended the code board meeting, told officials he also saw discussions before the meeting and heard words like "follow my lead."

At least two board members rebutted Katica's interpretation of their actions.

"We didn't talk before the vote period," code board member Tom Vourlos said Wednesday. "And what we discussed after the meeting I'm not going to say yes, no or anything to."

New board member Don Newman admitted he did talk to another board member, but not about the Biltmore.

"I asked the gentleman next to me who the people were sitting around me," Newman said.

Alexis Lambert, Sunshine Law attorney for the Attorney General's Office, said the law's prohibition is against discussing pending business before the board.

"It's the subject matter of the conversation that makes the difference," she said. "It depends entirely on the content of the conversation."

Florence Snyder, a First Amendment lawyer in Tallahassee, said board members shouldn't discuss public business out of the public spotlight, period. And she said the "quid pro quo" comments are inappropriate.

"The last time I checked, code enforcement boards do not have legal authority to act like rug merchants and do a little bartering," she said.

Belleair officials asked town attorney David Ottinger to look into the Sunshine Law issues.

Rahdert said his client is determined to work with the town.

"The Belleview Biltmore owners have always had the best of relationships with the community and the city despite our disappointment with the way this board behaved," he said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Sunshine Law flap erupts over Biltmore roof repair fine 11/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 8:13pm]
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