After more than two years of litigation, the Dunedin City Commission has settled a lawsuit with a Pinellas County watchdog who accused the city of violating Florida’s open government law during a code enforcement debacle.
The commission on Nov. 15 unanimously approved the settlement to pay Madeira Beach resident William Gay $50,000 to prevent further costs but not admit any wrongdoing.
The lawsuit stemmed from a case that brought national attention to Dunedin when the city was cracking down on code violators using, in some cases, massive fines.
In late 2018, Dunedin sued Kristi Allen to collect $103,000 in unpaid fines and interest for uncut grass and a dirty pool at a home she had signed over to the bank years earlier. USA Today highlighted the case in an expose about the city’s code enforcement efforts, which collected $3.6 million in fines in 5½ years.
The city began sending Allen violation notices in 2014, according to Tom Trask, the city attorney at the time. But the mother of two argued that officials knew she no longer owned the home and knew they were sending notices to the wrong address, according to court records.
In an affidavit, Jay Daigneault, Trask’s law partner, stated that after he joined the case in 2019, he determined that all letters that the city sent to Allen had been returned as undeliverable. Daigneault said he believed the city would lose the case because this lack of notice rendered the lien invalid.
Dunedin dropped its lawsuit against Allen in August 2019, and she filed a motion to collect attorney’s fees. Daigneault concluded a $40,000 settlement with Allen in January 2020.
Daigneault consulted over the phone with Dunedin City Manager Jennifer Bramley and made calls to each city commissioner about the settlement, according to his affidavit. He told the Tampa Bay Times in 2020 that a public meeting was not needed because the city charter gave the city manager authority to execute agreements that don’t involve policy.
Gay sued the city in May 2020 and alleged 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.
Trask resigned from representing Dunedin in 2020 after the City Commission put the city attorney contract out to bid.
Debra S. Babb-Nutcher, an Orlando attorney defending Dunedin in the Gay lawsuit, told the commission on Nov. 15 that “we still stand by” the defense that a meeting was not required to settle with Allen. But she described the terms reached with Gay in mediation as a way to prevent further costs to the city and avoid the risk of not succeeding at trial.
To date, it has cost $112,559 to fight the Gay lawsuit, but the city’s insurance paid all but $25,000, according to spokesperson Sue Burness.
“We followed the advice of our prior attorneys, in my view we did nothing wrong,” Commissioner Maureen Freaney said. “I think this is the right thing to do for the city and for the citizens’ money that we protect. … It is a business decision and sometimes business decisions you have to plug your nose and vote yes.”
Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives
Subscribe to our free How They Lived newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Gay has been successful in three lawsuits he filed against Madeira Beach, including one in 2017 in which a judge ruled the city violated the Sunshine Law when it used a secret ballot process to appoint a developer to the city commission.
He has a separate lawsuit pending against Madeira Beach alleging city commissioners violated the Sunshine Law when they decided behind closed doors to hire Trask as city attorney in a ploy to push development deals.
Gay said he wanted to settle the Dunedin case because of the time it has been dragged out in court. The settlement money, he said, will cover his legal fees, except for $5,000 that will be donated to the First Amendment Foundation.
“This was a case where they were using ordinances to fine people very heavily, and I thought that was outrageous and needed to be addressed,” he said.