HB shade meeting sparks Sunshine investigation

You might say a controversial tree house cast an ominous shadow at Holmes Beach City Hall. Or the sun don’t shine under that tree. Or more trouble grows …. But you get it.

David Levin, a Sarasota attorney representing Richard Hazen and Lynn Tran in the Holmes Beach matter of a tree house on the beachfront of Angelino’s Sea Lodge, has alleged a Sunshine Law violation against the city of Holmes Beach.

The state attorney’s office has assigned the case to the Bradenton Police Department following a recusal by Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer, an employee of the city undergoing scrutiny.

Levin contacted the state attorney’s office in early September following an Aug. 29 shade meeting called by city attorney Patricia Petruff to discuss litigation strategy related to the tree house, which has since been found to be in violation of city, state and federal codes.

Levin is appealing the city’s code enforcement decision in the 12th Judicial District. Hazen and Tran also are pursuing their right to file a petition demanding either approval of the tree house by the commission or a special election to have Holmes Beach voters decide its fate.

However, the city has filed legal action asking for a declaratory judgment on statute language that defines a building order before proceeding with any action. The statute states that a referendum cannot be held on a matter under the definition of a building order and the city maintains a required building permit is a building order.

The tree house matter has gone in almost as many directions as the branches of the Australian pine tree that supports it and, while the city can hold a closed meeting to discuss litigation, how the meeting is noticed to the public also matters.

Levin points out that the city met under the auspice of “litigation strategy,” according to its public notice.

The Sunshine Law provides that public officials can meet in closed session to discuss “litigation expenditures.”

Levin is arguing litigation strategy is not a valid reason for the city’s shade meeting.

This is the third such Sunshine Law issue that has surfaced in recent weeks for Mayor Carmel Monti’s administration.

One violation is alleged to have occurred at the onset of meetings by an advisory committee formed to address improvements around the intersection of Marina and Gulf drives. The committee met July 8 without public notice.

Monti was informed by city staff prior to the July meeting that it was required to be public, but the group and Monti proceeded to hold the meeting. They have since been properly noticed.

Another Sunshine Law issue occurred during an Oct. 8 city commission meeting when Islander publisher Bonner Joy challenged a potential illegal communication between Monti and Commissioner Judy Titsworth.

Joy addressed the commission during public comment at the end of the agenda items, and said the public witnessed a note being passed from Monti to Titsworth. Monti said nothing, while Titsworth adamantly denied the existence of a note.

But Titsworth later apologized in a letter to the newspaper and the public, saying she was reminded by the mayor that he had, in fact, shown her a note at the meeting.

The note stated, “Everybody is being nice tonight. What’s up with that?”

Joy stated a public records request at the meeting, and again the following day to the city clerk, after which Monti produced the note.

Joy maintains whispers among commissioners and the mayor and passed notes are improper at public meetings where the citizens in the gallery are entitled to know what is being said or shared in notes.

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