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A Clearwater law firm and a Pinellas retiree spar again over public records

First in Madeira Beach and now in Dunedin, a retired consultant says he’s working to keep local governments transparent.

Madeira Beach retiree Bill Gay has already won three court battles challenging decisions made by his city officials under the guidance of the Trask Daigneault law firm.

Now, in a lawsuit he filed recently against the city of Dunedin, Gay is in a familiar position — challenging a small Pinellas County town represented by the same Clearwater law firm. And, once again, the issue is government transparency.

His latest suit, filed May 20 in Pinellas County circuit court, alleges Dunedin officials violated Florida’s Sunshine Law in January when they settled a legal dispute with a resident without a public meeting.

Bill Gay says local governments should be "open and honest institutions,” but that "has not always been the case.” [ Courtesy of Bill Gay ]

"Things have to be done in the public view and not behind the scenes,” said Gay, who spent 30 years in management consulting, including for local governments, before retiring to Madeira Beach.

Besides Dunedin and Madeira Beach, the Trask Daigneault firm represents at least five other cities in Pinellas.

In late 2018, Dunedin sued Kristi Allen, a mother of two, to collect $103,000 in fines and interest for uncut grass and a dirty pool at a home she had signed over to the bank years earlier. The case then gained national attention last summer with a USA Today expose that investigated the city’s code enforcement practices.

A separate code enforcement case had gone viral a few months earlier when Dunedin moved to foreclose on a resident for $30,000 in fines for uncut grass. The mayor got threats at home. The city hired a crisis public relations firm.

The policy that allowed such actions was used “on the advice and with the assistance of Trask Daigneault,” according to Gay’s lawsuit. It also also brought in more than $2 million for the city between 2017 and 2018, the suit said.

The month after the USA Today story appeared, the city dropped its case against Allen. Gay, in his lawsuit, describes it as a move by Dunedin to “stop the embarrassment" and avoid more exposure of the case’s “lack of merit.” Allen had argued the city officials knew she did not own the home for 80 percent of the time period covered by the fines and knew they were sending notices to the wrong address, according to court records.

Then Allen filed a motion to collect attorney’s fees. According to billing notations cited in Gay’s lawsuit, law partners Tom Trask and Jay Daigneault negotiated and concluded a $40,000 settlement with Allen in January without a public meeting.

Billing notations show Daigneault consulted over the phone with Dunedin City Manager Jennifer Bramley and made calls to each city commissioner about the settlement.

In his lawsuit, Gay alleges this closed-door settlement violated the Sunshine Law, which requires that meetings in which public business is discussed are to be advertised and open to the public.

In a phone interview, Daigneault confirmed the settlement was reached without a public meeting but said the city charter gives the city manager the authority to execute agreements that do not involve policy decisions.

“The city manager was within administrative discretion to settle it without (the commission) voting on it because it didn’t involve policy,” Daigneault said.

Attorney Tim Weber, who is representing Gay, argues city policy was at play because the city had to drop a code enforcement lien and decide to award $40,000.

“That was clearly a change in the city’s policy,” Weber said. “The commission is the only one that has the power to actually compromise the code enforcement lien.”

Daigneault also confirmed he called each commissioner individually but said the reason was not to ask for their vote on whether to settle. It was to warn them about the situation in case reporters picked up the story, he said.

“I didn’t want them to be blindsided by information they were not aware of,” Daigneault said.

“Yeah, sure, tell it to the judge,” Weber said when told about Daigneault’s rationale for the calls.

Frank LoMonte, director of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said while decisions can be delegated to a city manager without the need for a vote by elected officials, the question is about the limit of that spending.

Dunedin’s charter does not specify a dollar amount the city manager is authorized to unilaterally spend on legal settlements.

“Could the city manager unilaterally write a $10 million check out of the treasury? Surely not,” LoMonte said. “At some point, there would be both an audit issue and an open-meetings issue if the city manager was delegated limitless spending authority.”

Before taking on Trask and Daigneault in Dunedin, Gay challenged decisions made under their guidance in Madeira Beach, where he lives.

In March 2017, a judge ruled in a lawsuit brought by Gay that the city violated the Sunshine Law when it used a ballot process outside of a public meeting to appoint a developer to the city commission.

That same month, the judge ruled Madeira Beach unlawfully refused Gay’s public records request for copies of ethics complaints filed against city officials.

And in November 2017, a panel of three appellate judges sided with Gay in deciding that Madeira Beach acted unlawfully when it approved a rezoning application for the construction a 7-acre hotel, condo and retail project without the developer submitting a site plan.

Daigneault declined to comment on past cases for this story on behalf of himself and Trask.

When the appellate judges ruled in the Madeira Beach rezoning case, the outcome was mostly symbolic.

The same day, Gay reached a settlement with the Town Center developer to scale back the height of the project’s hotels and condos, not knowing the appellate panel had issued a decision.

In Dunedin, he said, his goal is transparency.

“I have this passion and interest that our government act with integrity and do what I would call the right thing and be open and honest institutions,” Gay said. “What I found is that has not always been the case.”

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