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Judge to dismiss lawsuit over bids

The county's legal notices will stay in the Chronicle, but the Times likely will refile the suit.

An Ocala judge will dismiss the lawsuit that the Citrus Times' parent company brought against the county for the manner in which it selected the Citrus County Chronicle to publish the county's legal notices.

But the ruling does not bring the case to a close: St. Petersburg attorney Penelope Bryan said Times Publishing Company likely will refile the suit with additional information.

In its original suit, which was filed in January, the Times alleged that the county violated the state's competitive bidding procedures and the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law when Assistant County Attorney Richard Wesch had a private conversation last year with Chronicle operations director Tim Hess to discuss both newspapers' sealed bids for the contract to publish legal notices.

Both the Times and the Chronicle were competing for a contract with the county to publish the legal notices, which include announcements of public meetings. All local governments must advertise their meetings in a newspaper of general circulation.

The County Commission followed Wesch's recommendation on Nov. 16, 1999, to award the contract to the Chronicle, even though the Times' bid was lower. The Times offered to charge the county $1.40 per column inch, while the Chronicle charges $1.80 per column inch.

During a court hearing last month, the county argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the county is not required to select the lowest bidder, County Attorney Larry Haag said. In this case, he said, the Chronicle's higher circulation made it a better value for the county.

The Chronicle has a 26,523 weekday circulation and a 29,333 Sunday circulation, while the Citrus Times has a 13,882 weekday circulation and a 18,231 Sunday circulation, according to the bids submitted by the two newspapers.

The county also argued that "lobbying by prospective vendors," such as Hess' phone call to Wesch about the bids, is not a violation of the Sunshine Law.

In a short, three-paragraph letter addressed to Haag last week, Circuit Judge Carven Angel sided with the county's arguments and said he would dismiss the lawsuit.

"It would appear that no facts exist that could change this result, however, the plaintiff (Times) should be afforded an opportunity to amend if such facts exist," Angel wrote.

Once the county's outside attorney, Alan Zimmet, draws up the official order for Angel's signature, the lawsuit will be dismissed "without prejudice," meaning the Times could refile the lawsuit if it has new facts to add to its case.

Bryan, the Times' attorney, said she expects to refile the lawsuit with new evidence, including allegations that the county threw out old notes and agendas from the bid committee meeting in which the two newspapers' offers were discussed.

Florida's public records law requires government agencies to retain all documents created or received "in the course of its official business" so that any person may review the documents at any time.

"There's definitely some evidence there that needs to be addressed and aired out," Bryan said.

But Haag said the judge's ruling confirms his belief that the Times' lawsuit is "frivolous," and he said the county will eventually ask the court to order the Times to pay for the county's attorney fees and court costs.

"I told the Board (of County Commissioners) to begin with that I didn't think there was anything there, that it was a frivolous lawsuit _ sour grapes and such," Haag said.