The city of Bradenton Beach is joining a legal investigation of several planning and zoning board members who allegedly violated Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Laws.
At an Aug. 3 city meeting, commissioners and Mayor Bill Shearon voted unanimously to join an investigation initiated by paralegal consultant Michael Barfield, under the direction of attorney Robert Watrous of Sarasota, of several P&Z members for alleged Sunshine Law violations during a private meeting.
Bradenton Beach P&Z members Reed Mapes, John Metz, Patty Shay and Bill Vincent also are steering committee members of the recently formed grass-roots group, Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach. Vincent is chair and founder of CNOBB.
Following a July 27 CNOBB steering committee meeting, where discussion was held on the possibility of a parking garage in the city, city attorney Ricinda Perry distributed an email to the group, mayor and city commissioners, warning that discussion of city matters with more than one member of a board present could result in violations of open meeting laws.
The parking garage was considered by Perry as a land-use issue prohibited for discussion by board members outside of city meetings.
Perry listened to meeting recordings on the CNOBB website, cnobb.org, and then recommended the city take action to prevent it from being “exposed to litigation.”
At an Aug. 3 city commission meeting, Vice Mayor John Chappie motioned to amend the agenda to add the matter for immediate discussion.
“It’s serious stuff with Tallahassee and the ethics board up there,” Chappie said. “They don’t mess around.”
Shearon said the city is threatened “all the time” and until there is something to worry about, the city should not take action.
Chappie said, “This not a casual request, it is coming from our city attorney. Hopefully no harm, no foul, and we can take corrective action if necessary.”
Perry said according to CNOBB meeting recordings, P&Z members were talking about matters which might come before them, including the parking garage, which is included as a possible project in the updated community redevelopment plan.
Perry said Aug. 3 she had been contacted by Barfield with concerns about the P&Z members’ actions. She said his group is investigating the issue and “looking to file a complaint,” which could place the city in legal jeopardy.
Perry said she is concerned CNOBB will continue to place the city at risk.
During public comment, Vincent tendered his resignation from the P&Z board and said he planned to ask Mapes, Metz and Shay to resign as members of the CNOBB steering committee.
“I’ve been naïve, and perhaps misguided in thinking grown adults, knowing about the Sunshine Law, could voluntarily and effectively stay away from it,” Vincent said Aug. 3.
The commissioners individually thanked Vincent for his work on the P&Z board.
Additionally, Mapes sent an email to the commission and Perry Aug. 4 stating he also planned to resign from the P&Z board.
“The (CNOBB) has had zero discussions about anything about land planning. I suggested as one of our initiatives that we address blocking a Municipal Parking garage. It died for lack of discussion,” Mapes wrote in the Aug. 4 email.
Shay submitted her P&Z resignation Aug. 4.
During the Aug. 3 meeting, Commissioner Jake Spooner asked Perry if Vincent’s resignation would remedy the threat of legal action against the city.
Perry said the court would likely not take action against the city, but could investigate Mapes, Metz, Shay and Vincent, separately.
“They are individually on their own, in my opinion,” Perry said.
Perry said the city has options for the investigation, but joining Barfield probably would be the most cost-effective action for the city. She said there would be no fees if the city prevails, and she estimated the total cost not to exceed $5,000 if it did not.
She said it would be a simple process for Barfield, who has listened to the meeting recordings, and a ruling could be delivered by the end of the year.
“The horse is out of the barn,” Chappie said Aug. 3. “I just want to get moving on this before it gets worse.”
Commissioner Marilyn Maro said she was disappointed the CNOBB members didn’t come to the commission with their concerns.
CNOBB member Jim Hassett suggested the commission is on a CNOBB “witch hunt.”
Spooner responded that the city is not responsible for CNOBB’s actions. “Now we’re just trying to protect the city after we did our best to protect (CNOBB members),” Spooner said.
A motion was made to join the Watrous investigation of the P&Z/CNOBB steering committee members to allow a court to make a determination, with a cost not to exceed $5,000.
The motion passed unanimously.