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Romano: A moral to the St. Pete Beach legal fiasco

Published Oct. 20, 2014

Just so you know, this story has a moral.

That's important to remember because it's easy to lose in the avalanche of details, accusations and years involved.

It might go unnoticed when you get to the part about St. Pete Beach wasting more than $2 million of taxpayer money on attorney fees in the past decade.

And it almost certainly will get overlooked if you dare delve into the inevitable conflicts of redevelopment dreams versus status quo desires in a beachfront town.

Having said that, here are the much-condensed facts:

A certain segment of the city wants ordinances that would permit taller, and obviously more crowded, hotels and condos. Another segment wants to limit that type of growth.

This fight has gone on for more than 10 years with victory swinging like a pendulum from one side to the other. There have been ballots, court cases, City Commission decisions and even an intrusion by the state Legislature.

The latest blow was struck last week when a district court of appeal ruled a 2011 redevelopment plan should be nullified because the city did not provide adequate notice of the planned changes. The court also ruled the city violated the state's Sunshine laws by using private meetings to illegally discuss public policy.

The result?

More uncertainty. Potentially more upheaval. And presumably more taxpayer waste, because the city may now be on the hook for the other side's legal fees, too.

The moral?

Don't cheat. Even if you're an elected official. Even if you think you have found a loophole. Even if you are certain you are right.

Circumventing Sunshine laws — and the court ruling made it clear that St. Pete Beach officials were guilty — is the fastest way to erode public trust in City Hall.

"This is all about deceiving the public," said attorney Ken Weiss, who along with co-counsel Tim Weber and former commission candidate Jim Anderson has fought St. Pete Beach for years over development plans.

"People have always asked me: When does the litigation stop? The answer was always simple: As soon as the city starts following some very simple legal requirements.''

Interestingly enough, the city has an opportunity to begin that new chapter today.

The commission meets in the afternoon presumably to discuss where it goes from here. That answer remains ambiguous, because although last week's court case struck down the 2011 redevelopment plan, the city had already drafted another similar plan a couple of years later.

So, should they choose, commissioners could make the argument that they are free to proceed as if a judge did not just slap the city's wrists.

That would be, in a word, a crock.

It would completely ignore the reality that, according to the district court, a previous mayor and previous commissioners had worked in cahoots to dupe the city's residents.

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It doesn't matter that these court case have held the city hostage for far too long. And it doesn't matter that redevelopment, of some degree, is totally overdue.

Along those lines, Weiss said he is encouraged the new mayor and commissioners have been willing to discuss a compromise, that the two sides can find a plan that serves both business and residents.

That's critical because St. Pete Beach needs to make amends. It needs to earn back the trust of its citizens. It needs to start over and come up with an honest and open plan.

Not everyone will be thrilled, but that's okay.

As long they understand the moral of the story.


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