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Date of Issue: March 19, 2008

Transcripts detail city’s approach in suit

Transcripts from three “shade” meetings held by the Bradenton Beach officials detail the city’s strategy in responding to a public information suit filed by The Islander.

The newspaper last week filed a public records request for transcripts from the closed-door meetings involving attorney-client discussions on the suit The Islander filed last spring. State law provides for the governments to hold such meetings for attorney-client discussions on pending litigation.

The Islander sued Bradenton Beach last year alleging that city officials violated the state Public Records Act by withholding documents in a sexual harassment investigation and violated the state Sunshine Law in regards to that investigation. The Sunshine Law requires that government conduct business in the public light or cite statutory exemptions for doing otherwise.

In a costly court case, a Manatee County Circuit Court judge ruled that the city did wrongfully withhold several records, but he found insufficient evidence that the city violated the Sunshine Law.

More recently, another circuit court judge awarded the newspaper $5,855 in legal fees, far less than the newspaper sought, and denied the city’s request to recover its costs from The Islander.

Last week, The Islander requested and received the transcripts for three closed-door meetings in which city commissioners met with city attorney Ricinda Perry to discuss the suit.

The most recent meeting took place Jan. 17 and involved a strategy discussion on a court review of requests for attorney’s fees and a settlement offer from The Islander.

At one point during the meeting, Commissioner John Chappie suggested the city make a counter-offer to the newspaper. The offer, he said, would be, “You pay the taxpayers back.”

Mayor Michael Pierce responded, “Is that going to hit the newspaper?”

Perry said, “I can make sure I route a copy of that to the Sun and The Islander, and even the Bradenton Herald, if you’d like. They haven’t picked up this story, which to me means they know there isn’t much legitimacy.”

“That’s exactly what I was referring to, we can utilize the press,” Pierce said.

Perry said, “We can do that, and I can draft that settlement offer almost as a press statement of, you know, let’s get the facts out on our side. How much of it will make the paper, beats me.”

When the “shade” meeting concluded, the commissioners held a public vote, rejecting the newspaper’s settlement offer and offering a counter “that The Islander pay the attorney’s fees and costs incurred to date by the city of Bradenton Beach.”

The paper did not accept that offer.

A 55-minute “shade” meeting on Sept. 14, 2007, involved a discussion between city commissioners and Perry on the financial costs associated with the lawsuit and another settlement offer from the paper. The Islander had offered to settle for $38,500 in its attorney’s fees and an agreement from the city to undergo two hours of education on public records and Sunshine regulations and a commitment to abide by the law.

Perry, during that meeting, outlined various options and recommended, “If this were my checkbook, I would stick it out.”

Then-Commissioner Bill Shearon said that to protect taxpayer dollars “I think we ought to just fight it out.… Let the judge rule and the chips fall where the chips fall.”

In a public vote, the commission rejected the settlement offer and directed Perry to continue with the case as well as pursue the recovery of attorney’s fees.

The next “shade” meeting took place Nov. 16, 2007, when the commission reviewed with Perry the judge’s order that “grants in part and denies in part” the newspaper’s claims.

Perry told the board, “It was a great win for the city. We protected the city as a whole.”

She said that had the city released documents associated with her investigation of the sexual harassment complaint, the city might have faced a lawsuit from a city employee and could “have been in a position where we were criminally liable.”

Perry explored with the board whether to ask the judge to reconsider aspects of his order, a move the commission endorsed.

The lengthy court battle likely is not over. The Islander has indicated its intent to appeal the order on its motion for attorney’s fees.