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Battle over city hall heads to Tallahassee

(ran Beach edition)

A Treasure Island lawyer has asked the attorney general to investigate the deal behind the new City Hall in St. Pete Beach.

The lawyer, J.D. Hadsall, who recently lost his election bid for Treasure Island City Commission, declined Friday to reveal who his clients are. "At this point, they've asked that I not disclose their identity," Hadsall said. "They want to stick to the issue and not the personality."

Jim Devito, the St. Pete Beach city attorney who advised the City Commission that the deal is legal, is on vacation. In the meantime, David Moye, a Tallahassee lawyer with the Fowler White firm, will handle the issue for the city.

"Basically, we forwarded all the information to him and asked him to make contact with the attorney general," City Manager Mike Bonfield said Friday.

The new City Hall has been controversial since it inception. Through an unusual arrangement, Long Key Properties, which owned the ground the new building occupies, sold the building to the city at a price well below the appraised value. Paul Skipper, a principal in that company, got the exclusive deal to build City Hall because of that transaction.

The city did not take ownership until March 15, after a city inspector finished checking the building. An independent consultant has kept tabs on the project throughout its construction. The final purchase price was $3.53-million.

The new City Hall became an issue during this spring's city election campaign, when political challengers Steve Gordon, who lost his bid for mayor, and Bill Allard, who is running against City Commissioner Pete Blank for the District 3 commission seat, insisted the City Hall deal was illegal and unethical.

Allard will face Blank in an April 2 runoff election.

Hadsall said he became involved in the issue after some St. Pete Beach residents asked him to look into the agreement between the city and the developer. He wrote in his letter to Attorney General Bob Butterworth that the mayor and commissioners awarded the contract to their "personal friend, Paul Skipper."

"I believe the violations could potentially involve civil penalties," Hadsall said Friday.

Hadsall's letter is not the first attempt to take the City Hall issue to a higher authority. Last year, residents Ralph Lickton and Jim Nelson asked the state attorney's office to investigate.

"We saw no evidence that there was a criminal violation of any statute and, therefore, did not open a criminal investigation," Assistant State Attorney Robert M. Lewis wrote in a letter to Devito last year. "Shortly thereafter, the matter appeared to become moot with the cancellation of the contract concerning the construction of the new building."

Skipper pulled out of the deal while the state attorney's office was investigating, but the developer and the city continued trying to work toward a contract and finally signed one last spring. Less than a year later, the building is complete and the city has accepted it and paid for it.

City Commissioner Lolly Kreider suggested a year ago that the city should request an attorney general's opinion on the matter. She said questioning the attorney general about the city's non-bid deal with the developer might help "appease the people's doubts."

Devito said that would be a waste of time.

"Frankly, I feel if we went to the attorney general, we'd get the same opinion," Devito said then.

A state attorney represents the state of Florida in prosecuting criminal cases. The Attorney General, among other responsibilities mentioned in state statutes, may "give an official opinion and legal advice in writing on any question of law relating to the official duties of the requesting officer."

Only elected officials may request legal opinions from the attorney general, but Hadsall said he is requesting an investigation, not a legal opinion.

"They may act on it; they may not," Hadsall said.

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