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Conflict of interest question resolved for St. Pete Beach candidate

Published Jan. 24, 2014

ST. PETE BEACH — Mayor Steve McFarlin has dropped his call for an ethics inquiry into James Anderson's candidacy for a seat on the City Commission.

Anderson is running for the District 3 commission seat in the March 11 city election. He is opposed by Gregory Premer.

At issue is whether Anderson's ongoing legal action against the city and its comprehensive plan would pose a significant conflict of interest for the candidate.

This month, McFarlin asked City Attorney Mike Davis to pursue the issue with the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Before Davis could act, however, Anderson's attorney, Ken Weiss, contacted the Ethics Commission for a direct opinion.

In an email to Weiss, the Commission on Ethics staff attorney, Gray Schafer, made it clear that under state law and its ethics rules there is no impediment to Anderson running for a commission seat.

Schafer said similar issues arose in the past in other cities and the commission's published opinions state that "there would be no conflict for a public officer with a pending lawsuit against his agency to serve on that same agency . . . the same reasoning can be applied to a candidate running for public office."

The ethics attorney did stress, however, that if a candidate such as Anderson were elected, "voting on an issue related to the litigation would violate the voting conflict statute."

Schafer also said Anderson should not "use his position" as a commissioner to "access confidential information" that would "benefit himself in the lawsuit."

City Attorney Mike Davis subsequently said basically the same thing in an email to City Manager Mike Bonfield.

Davis stressed that he had not told the commission that suing the city was a bar to becoming a candidate or being elected to office, only that if elected there could be a "voting conflict regarding matters affecting the lawsuit."

Anderson has said he would recuse himself from any commission decisions involving his case.

McFarlin said the response from the Commission on Ethics answered his questions and he did not plan to pursue the issue.

"I just wanted to know that if he got into office would he have to recuse himself, especially on issues relating to the comprehensive plan or redevelopment of the Corey area," McFarlin said.

The city's comprehensive plan has been the center of a legal dispute for more than a decade — a dispute that has resulted in several referendum elections, political power shifts on the commission, multiple lawsuits against the city, changes to the city charter, and even a special state law.

The city's current comprehensive plan, originally written by a group of residents and hoteliers (Save Our Little Village or SOLV) and approved by voters, has been reviewed by the state and unanimously approved by the commission with minor changes requested by the state.

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Anderson's latest lawsuit is now before the 2nd District Court of Appeal. He is alleging the commission violated the Sunshine Law during closed meetings with city attorneys in 2011.

The First Amendment Foundation joined Anderson's suit last summer as a friend of the court arguing that the city had violated the Sunshine Law.

Oral arguments were completed late last year and both the city and Anderson are waiting for a ruling.


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