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Date of Issue: October 04, 2007

Public records trial ends; judge considers arguments

A decision in the dispute over alleged public records and Sunshine Law violations now rests with Circuit Court Judge Peter Dubensky.

The trial in the suit filed by The Islander newspaper against Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie concluded after a third day of testimony and argument Sept. 26 at the Manatee County courthouse.

Dubensky, at the end of the trial, promised a ruling soon on whether the city violated freedom of information laws, as well as who will pay legal fees and court costs. Both parties agreed costs now exceed more than $50,000.

The lawsuit, filed April 11 in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, developed over the handling of information pertaining to a sexual harassment complaint filed by one city employee against another. In late February, city planning and code enforcement clerk Gail Garneau alleged that Ed McAdam, who headed the city building department, sexually harassed her.

Chappie responded to the complaint by asking city attorney Ricinda Perry to investigate. In the meantime, McAdam and Garneau both were placed on administrative leave by Chappie. Soon after, McAdam resigned.

The Islander suit, filed by attorney Kendra Presswood, alleges that public records pertaining to the complaint and resignation were illegally withheld, that Perry acted as a stand-in for the mayor when she investigated the complaint, that city officials broke Government-in-the-Sunshine Laws by discussing the complaint and resignation in one-on-one conversations with Perry outside a public meeting, and that the emergency meeting held to handle the resignation was illegal, taking place just three hours after it was announced and lacking a declared state of emergency.

In repeated responses to the allegations, Perry has denied any wrongdoing on the city’s part.

In court last week, the attorneys for The Islander and the city squared off, both claiming to serve the public good.

Presswood emphasized the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know, while Perry emphasized taxpayer expense, referring to the cost of the case and disruption of city operations.

Presswood called two witnesses on Sept. 26 -Islander news editor Paul Roat and Islander publisher Bonner Joy Futch, who is Presswood’s mother.

Perry called one witness - city clerk Nora Idso, who was repeatedly referred to during the trial as the custodian of records.

Previously, during the first portion of the trial Aug. 16-17, witnesses included Chappie, city commissioners, Garneau and McAdam.

Presswood’s evidence involved a series of requests filed by Joy and Roat seeking public records or “information” pertaining to the complaint, resignation, investigation, and the city’s responses to those requests.

The Islander attorney emphasized that some documents released to the newspaper were withheld three and four months, and that other documents, such as Perry’s notes on the investigation and possibly relevant entries from Garneau’s journal, have never been made public, but should be public records. Perry’s notes are currently in the judge’s custody for his review. Garneau had read excerpts from her journal to Perry and another investigator during the sexual harassment investigation.

Presswood also played an audio recording of the March emergency meeting at which the city commission accepted McAdam’s resignation and agreed to advertise for a replacement in the building department. During the meeting, no one asked why McAdam abruptly resigned.

“No one said anything,” Presswood said in her closing argument. “Nothing. No discussion whatsoever. That indicates there were discussions outside the meeting in violation of the Sunshine Law.”

Perry, in her summation, characterized the lawsuit as frivolous and said the city responded appropriately to the newspaper’s repeated request for records.

“The plaintiff is trying to open a confidential investigation for the publication of news stories,” she said.

“To be honest,” she continued, “I have no idea why we are here. ... The Islander’s entire case was based on belief and speculation.”

Perry cited the instances in which records were released and added that some documents were withheld until the investigation was closed, in accordance with the claim it was done according Florida’s whistleblower protection law.

Presswood argued that the whistleblower protection didn’t apply in this case. The city, she said, has not produced any evidence that a retaliation complaint was filed.