Court rules Madeira Beach violated Sunshine Law, removes commissioner

Housh Ghovaee was removed from his seat after the court ruled the City Commission had violated the Sunshine Law.
Housh Ghovaee was removed from his seat after the court ruled the City Commission had violated the Sunshine Law.
Published March 10, 2017

MADEIRA BEACH — The City Commission met Tuesday without one of its five members, the result of a court ruling that commission appointment procedures violated the Florida Sunshine Law.

Housh Ghovaee, who was appointed to the commission last fall after the resignation of Pat Shontz, who has since died, spoke instead from the audience, saying he hoped voters would return him to his commission seat in next week's election.

That election was a strong undercurrent throughout the meeting that ended with the commission unanimously approving the Holiday Isles Marina project on vacant land at the southwestern foot of the Tom Stuart Causeway.

Opposition to the hotel-condominium project, like a similar one on Madeira Way approved last month, has been the intense focus of an organized group, Madeira Beach United, throughout the campaign.

Members and supporters of that group have filed a series of ethics complaints against the commission and city staff, filed lawsuits, including the Sunshine Law case, challenging actions that directly and indirectly led to approval of the hotel projects, and just days ago implied they intend to oust City Manager Shane Crawford.

Monday, two candidates opposed to the projects asked the city's finance director, Vince Tenaglia, if he would take over as city manager after the election.

Tenaglia declined. He had already given notice that he would be resigning to take a similar position in St. Pete Beach.

Margaret Black, who is running for mayor on a ticket opposed to the now-approved developments, denied Wednesday that she ever said she planned to seek Crawford's dismissal.

She did say candidate John Douthirt joined her in approaching Tenaglia. The third member of their self-declared "ticket," Nancy Oakley, was not present for that conversation.

"There is going to be a shakeup no matter who gets in," Black said. "We wanted to find out where Vince stood. He would be the logical choice to replace Shane."

Black said if her ticket won the election, Crawford might "decide to leave himself," but declined to say whether she planned to push for him to be fired.

"I can't comment on that right now. I would want to speak to him first. There are too many factors that would make a difference," said Black.

Black added she had planned to speak at Tuesday night's meeting, but decided not to because of the "unfriendly crowd."

During the meeting, more than a dozen people from the audience spoke in support of the current commission and the development projects they have approved. One resident spoke in opposition.

As the commission approved the Holiday Isles project, City Attorney Tom Trask emphasized that its sharply reduced scope would revert to the original, larger project if any resident challenged it in court.

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Other court challenges to commission actions are still pending, including one that questions the validity of the city's zoning codes on which the approved hotel projects were based.

The Sunshine Law case does not directly affect any of the commission's actions since at no time was Ghovaee's vote crucial in commission decisions.

What Circuit Judge Jack Day tdid find was that commissioners submitting ballots — and Ghovaee being notified by city staff of his pending appointment — outside of a public meeting violated state law requiring those actions be done in the open.

The court, in finding the commission violated the Sunshine Law, voided Ghovaee's appointment.

"There was no intention by the city to do anything wrong," said Mayor Travis Palladeno. "The city has always done it that way. It was a process meant to be compassionate and not embarrass other applicants."