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Joe Mason's Weeki Wachee battle expensive for public

Elsewhere on this page, Times staff writer Tony Marrero explains all the details, the fine points of who could be stuck with the legal bill Joe Mason racked up during his so-called defense of the hopefully soon-to-be-defunct city of Weeki Wachee.

What I know is that the bill is big: $1.24 million.

And that, as things stand now, we the county taxpayers are most likely to pay it. And that the work didn't benefit us one bit.

I know the legal battle that generated most of these fees went on way too long — about four years. And I suspect this happened partly because Mason enjoyed the fight and the attention.

In other words, Mason's representation of Weeki Wachee was in line with the way he usually operates in the public realm.

Early last week, before submitting his bill, he said the amount "wouldn't be a backbreaker.'' It is, of course. And what's more, Mason, a longtime Brooksville lawyer, seems to be breaking another body part, or parts. The polite term is "busting chops.''

Mason, not surprisingly, doesn't see things this way. And because he is a darned smart lawyer, he can make it sound as though his work for Weeki Wachee was legitimate, even noble. He says he did nothing more than defend the right of his client — a public entity, after all — to operate as a mermaid attraction and water park after the Southwest Florida Water Management District bought the property in 2003.

He put in a lot of years and a lot of $360 hours on the city's behalf. His bill could have been a lot lower if the district had just allowed Weeki Wachee to run the attraction in peace.

But, remember, Swiftmud declared soon after the suit was filed that it had no intention of doing away with the mermaid show (though, personally, and this is a discussion for another day, I'd be fine with that).

Remember, too, Mason was fighting a public agency whose staff salaries and $85,000 in outside legal fees were also paid for by you and me, and which, as I always saw it, mostly just wanted to preserve a priceless natural resource.

So he was standing in the way of our interests then, and is doing so now because Weeki Wachee, population 7, was never a real city. It was formed 43 years ago so the name of a mermaid park would show up on road maps. And during the time Mason racked up almost all of his legal bills, the city basically was the park.

Dissolving Weeki Wachee's charter is one of the few good ideas I've heard this year from lawmakers who seem intent on allowing offshore drilling and the piping of our groundwater around the state. That Mason had the nerve to submit his huge bill for legal fees, throwing the process into chaos and interfering with the plan to run the attraction as it should be, strictly as a state park, is no surprise.

His endless, bombastic presentations before the County Commission in recent years have been the source of a lot of jokes and a lot of puzzlement, because it seems so clear they alienate the commissioners and undermine his clients' interests.

I wouldn't get personal, except I think one of the issues with Mason is personal. Years ago, he was the stand-in for the county's most powerful businesses and known for being able to tailor county policy to suit them. He was a big shot, and maybe this is what makes him feel as though he still is: busting our chops.

Joe Mason's Weeki Wachee battle expensive for public 12/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 5, 2009 12:26pm]
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