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Another St. Pete Beach lawsuit, but this time the city's not the target

Published Feb. 2, 2016

ST. PETE BEACH — Yet another lawsuit relating to the city's political and legal battles over development rules was filed Monday.

But this time, it is not the city that is being sued.

Instead, former City Commissioner Harry Metz is suing the city's former legal firm, Bryant Miller Olive, in Hillsborough Circuit Court. The law firm is based in Tampa.

That firm's contract was not renewed by the city in 2014 when the commission began questioning its advice and billing. The city is now considering filing a malpractice action against the firm.

The city lost several court cases while being represented by BMO and is now facing paying millions of dollars in court-ordered damages and fees, primarily for violating the Sunshine Law.

Metz was one of the founding members of a now defunct political action group, Citizens for Responsible Growth, that opposed high-rise hotels and intensive development.

Over the past decade, several residents sympathetic to CRG's agenda filed a series of lawsuits against the city.

Those lawsuits effectively froze new development until the city reached a settlement agreement last year to impose more restrictive development regulations.

Now Metz wants phone and billing records from the city's former law firm regarding a 2013 conference call between the Commission and its then attorney, Susan Churuti of BMO.

According to the complaint filed by Metz's attorneys, Tim Weber and Ken Weiss, the law firm possibly violated the Sunshine Law public records requirements by refusing to release the requested records.

BMO's billing states the "telephone conference" was "with commissioners" but does not state explicitly that Churuti spoke with all five commissioners at the same time or whether there were separate conversations.

Attorney Ben Hill, who represents BMO, said Churuti unequivocally told him the "telephone conference" involved multiple calls with individual commissioners.

Email and letters between Metz's attorneys and various attorneys at BMO show the public records requests were repeatedly rejected by the law firm, either because the phone records did not exist or were internal records not covered by the Sunshine Law.


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