Sarasota attorney Robert Lincoln filed a lawsuit Feb. 6 on behalf of ELRA Inc. alleging Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon has overstepped his authority and has a conflict of interest in the ongoing litigation to terminate a joint development agreement with ELRA, the corporate entity of the Beachhouse Restaurant.
The lawsuit also alleges Shearon is threatening the jobs of some city staff if they do not oppose the agreement with ELRA.
Lincoln then double-dipped, sending the same day a request to city attorney Ricinda Perry for ELRA to join the city defense of the lawsuit brought forward in 2012 by Shearon, Tjet Martin and Jo Ann Meilner that claims the agreement allowing a parking lot on the beach should be thrown out.
Perry said it is likely a judge would grant ELRA’s request to co-defend the lawsuit to nullify the agreement to build a dune and parking lot at the restaurant across Gulf Drive from city hall. She recommended the city allow ELRA to join its defense.
Commissioners unanimously agreed at a Feb. 6 meeting not to fight the ELRA defense request, but Commissioner Jack Clarke asked the obvious question. “So Robert Lincoln is going to sue the mayor and the city is going to pay for (his) defense, but he’s also going to join the suit on the city’s side? Isn’t there any conflict of interest there?” Clarke asked.
Perry said there is no conflict because Lincoln is representing ELRA’s interests, not the city.
“So he’s joining the party, but just not in the same wagon,” said Clarke.
Perry said “Yes.” She also said the commission would need to authorize the mayor’s defense. She recommended that attorney Charles Johnson be retained at what would amount to a reduced cost.
Johnson already is the lead litigant for the city against the development lawsuit.
Perry said she, building official Steve Gilbert, city planner Alan Garrett and other city officials have been named in the lawsuit, so she would be unable to defend it.
The most recent movement on the case was in October 2012, when the city was seeking a judge’s ruling on mediation offered to the plaintiffs, but rejected. The judge was appointed by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, father of Beachhouse owner Ed Chiles. She recused herself from the case.
“There has been no further movement since then,” said Perry.
The lawsuit filed in June 2012 against the city to terminate the joint development agreement includes former planning and zoning member Meilner as a plaintiff.
Meilner said that for ELRA to join the city to defend the lawsuit changes nothing, noting the lawsuit will move forward.
The suit was filed before Shearon became mayor, and both he and longtime partner Marti were named plaintiffs with Meilner. Shearon also was a P&Z member at the time the development agreement was recommended for denial by P&Z, but approved during a contentious city commission meeting under the previous administration.
Shearon removed his name from the lawsuit following his election as mayor, acknowledging he would essentially be suing himself.
He pledged to keep out of the case in a postelection interview, but Lincoln maintains the opposite has occurred in a list of allegations against the mayor.
Lincoln alleges Shearon’s ties to Martin as a remaining plaintiff creates a conflict.
He also alleges the city did not undertake due process in the creation of ordinances and resolutions appointing Perry to give the commission legal advice, and alleges the same for Gilbert and Garrett pertaining to their expertise.
Lincoln writes that Shearon has violated the city charter by attempting to become a “strong mayor” by making decisions prior to city commission approval.
He further asserts that Shearon’s reorganizational efforts within city hall are being determined by what the mayor believes to be in the best interest of the city, but without guidance from the city commission.
The suit alleges that Shearon has threatened employees jobs if they do not follow his directions and misused his authority by directing city staff to take a position on the development agreement that is in line with his position as a former plaintiff.
Lincoln cites Gilbert, Garrett and code enforcement officer Gail Garneu as examples of staff being threatened if they don’t follow direction from Shearon.
Lincoln cites as an example, during a period from Dec. 3, 2013, to Jan. 12, 2014, “Shearon communicated with Gilbert and Garrett … insisting they interpret and apply the city’s land development codes to identify additional objections to the application” to the extent that they would have to recommend denial to the city commission.
In an email to the city dated the same day as the lawsuit, Lincoln cautions Shearon against retaliation attempts against city employees.
“I will consider any attempt by you to find out who’s talking or even ask as a threat and hostile act and attempting to interfere with public servants in the performance of their duties,” Lincoln wrote.