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Bradenton Beach lawyers want city, not mayor named in lawsuit

By Merab-Michal Favorite, Islander Reporter

ELRA Inc., owner of the Beachhouse Restaurant, amended on Feb. 24 its lawsuit against Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon that challenges his capacity as mayor.

Sarasota attorney Robert Lincoln filed the original lawsuit Feb. 6 on behalf of ELRA Inc., alleging Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon overstepped his authority and has a conflict of interest in the ongoing litigation to terminate a development agreement between ELRA and the city.

ELRA Inc. lists Ed Chiles as president/director on the government-sponsored website sunbiz.org.

The lawsuit asks that the court to issue an order determining how Shearon should act in certain future situations.

Charles F. Johnson, of Blalock Walters, the law firm representing Shearon on behalf of the city, said it was his opinion that the court should not pre-judge future events or in any way limit future authority or conduct of the mayor. He says the court should not make a speculative decision on the unknown.

ELRA Inc. also alleges that two emails sent by the mayor to Bradenton Beach commissioners violate Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law. Lincoln alleges the mayor and commissioners can’t discuss matters of public policy without being in a public meeting. No other complaint has been made.

According to a memorandum sent by Johnson, it wasn’t the initial emails but the responses that allegedly violated Chapter 286 of Florida statute.

Johnson said the law firm is investigating those claims, and has filed a motion to dismiss, as well as a motion to substitute parties.

The motion to substitute parties argues that the real party interest is the city, rather than Mayor Shearon, and the lawsuit should reflect that.

The motion to dismiss argues that portions of the suit are moot because of the other suit against the city filed by former planning and zoning board member Jo Ann Meilner and Tjet Martin. That lawsuit has been ongoing since June 2012.

It originally included Shearon, Martin’s life partner and business partner, as a plaintiff, but Shearon withdrew after being elected mayor in November 2013.

Blalock Waters invoiced the city $3,093 to file the motions. Commissioners unanimously approved the expense during their March 20 meeting.

A new judge has been assigned to the lawsuit brought by Martin and Meilner against the city.

On Feb. 28, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Janette Dunnigan entered an order disqualifying herself from the case, citing a conflict of interest. The case has been re-assigned to Judge Gilbert Smith, also of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

Shearon, Martin and Meilner filed the 2012 lawsuit challenging the city’s approval of an agreement with ELRA Inc., allowing construction of a parking lot on a vacant parcel south of the BeachHouse Restaurant.

At the time of the planning and zoning board review, the board found the application inconsistent with the comprehensive plan and that the proposed parking lot impeded on an erosion control line developed by the state in 1992.

According to ELRA’s attorney, in 2006, the city initiated a code enforcement action against ELRA regarding the use of the vacant parcel. However, ELRA’s evidence at the hearing showed the parcel had been used for parking since the restaurant opened in the 1970s. It was considered “grandfathered” — exempt from regulation. The parties then compromised, allowing up to forty cars to park on the parcel.

Between 2008 and 2012, ELRA Inc. claims it worked with the city to ensure parking on the vacant lot did not violate sea turtle nesting regulations.

In March 2012, the city approved the joint agreement with ELRA to improve the parking lot, install handicap-accessible parking spaces and improve access for city residents. The project included creating a dune west of the lot to protect city hall — across Gulf Drive — from storm surge. The joint agreement gave both entities non-exclusive access.

The P&Z recommended against the agreement, and Shearon and Meilner resigned from P&Z following the approval by the commission.

ELRA’s lawsuit also alleges Meilner and Shearon were observed by an unnamed witness talking in the parking lot following a P&Z meeting, violating the Sunshine Law, but no complaint has been made to that effect.

The lawsuit filed by Meilner and Martin against the city has been stalled in the court system, without mediation, arbitration or a hearing date.

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