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Date of Issue: January 23, 2008

City rejects paper's settlement offer

The Bradenton Beach City Commission Jan. 17 rejected The Islander’s most recent settlement offer in a lawsuit against the city.

The newspaper filed a complaint in April alleging city officials violated public records and Government-in-the-Sunshine laws in the handling of a sexual harassment complaint.

A judge ruled on that complaint last fall and now both parties in the suit are seeking attorneys fees and costs - the total exceeds $100,000.

Bradenton Beach Mayor Michael Pierce and Commissioners John Chappie, Janie Robertson, Bob Connors and John Shaughnessy met Jan. 17 with city attorney Ricinda Perry in a closed-door “strategy session related to litigation expenses.”

Following the hour-long discussion, the meeting was reopened to the public and the board voted unanimously to reject a settlement offer from The Islander and reaffirm the city’s intent to recover its expenses from the paper.

The motion, written by Perry, made by Chappie and seconded by Robertson, stated, “I move to direct Lewis, Longman and Walker reject the fees presented in The Islander’s latest offer and to counter offer that The Islander pay the attorneys fees and costs incurred to date by the city of Bradenton Beach for defending” the city against the paper’s suit.

The motion further stated that the city “clearly prevailed on counts 1, 2 and 3” in The Islander’s complaint.

City officials and the newspaper are at odds over the interpretation of the judge’s ruling in the initial lawsuit, filed by the newspaper in April 2007 and asserting that the city violated public records and open government laws in its handling of a sexual harassment complaint filed by a city employee.

Both parties claimed victory after Manatee County Circuit Judge Peter Dubensky ruled in the case. The judge found that the city did violate the public records law by withholding several documents. However, he also found “insufficient evidence” to fault the city for violating the Sunshine Law. The judge wrote that the court “grants in part and denies in part” the newspaper’s claims.

That decision set the stage for a new dispute over who would pay the legal costs of the suit and how much.

A hearing on attorneys fees began Jan. 8 and was continued until Feb. 8 at the courthouse in Bradenton before Circuit Court Judge Edward Nicholas.

Attorney Kendra Presswood, daughter of newspaper publisher Bonner Joy, has filed a request to recover from the city $59,448 in fees and costs on behalf of The Islander.

Meanwhile, attorney Kevin Hennessy, representing the city, has filed a motion seeking $49,956 in attorneys fees and $3,516 in costs from The Islander.

Presswood presented part of her case at the January hearing, arguing that the newspaper successfully showed that the city improperly withheld public records.

She also offered a settlement - that the newspaper would accept $53,472.97 - the same amount charged to the city by its law firm. It was that offer the elected officials rejected last week.

Responding to the commission’s vote, Presswood said, “It is amazing to me that the city continues to insist the newspaper wronged them when in fact they were found by a court of law to be the wrongdoers. It appears that they not only have no respect for the laws that govern them, but do not respect the courts either.”

“There is no legal or factual basis to support the city asking The Islander to pay any of their costs or attorneys fees,” Presswood added. “The only thing that is going to result from their vote is that they are going to spend more money on unnecessary litigation and end up owing the newspaper more money in fees instead of less.”

The newspaper’s quest for attorneys fees will resume Feb. 8.

Hennessy has acknowledged that the newspaper is entitled to recover some fees and costs, but not the full amount. He pointed out that there was insufficient evidence to prove the newspaper’s claim that city officials violated the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

Also at that Feb. 8 hearing, Nicholas is expected to rule on the city’s motion for fees and The Islander’s memorandum of law asserting that the city is not entitled to recover fees and costs.