Bradenton Beach ‘sunshine’ suit embroils city

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Sarasota attorney Bill Watrous, representing former Mayor Jack Clarke in a lawsuit against city board members, addresses the Bradenton Beach Commission Aug. 17 with residents Rose and Bill Vincent seated behind him. Bill Vincent is named in the lawsuit. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes
About 25 people attend the Aug. 17 Bradenton Beach City Commission meeting at city hall, 107 Gulf Drive N.

Bradenton Beach officials were aiming for an expeditious process in their discussion Aug. 17 for a lawsuit filed by former commissioner and Mayor Jack Clarke against members of two city boards.

Attorney Bill Watrous and paralegal Michael Barfield attended an Aug. 17 commission meeting to address concerns on behalf of Clarke.

The city of Bradenton Beach voted Aug. 7 to be added as a plaintiff in the suit with Clarke, who is alleging Sunshine Law violations by some members of the city’s planning and zoning board and Scenic Waves Partnership Committee.

The suit was filed Aug. 11 in the 12th District Circuit Court against P&Z members Reed Mapes, John Metz, Patty Shay and Bill Vincent, along with Scenic Waves chair Tjet Martin and Waves member Rose Vincent.

Mapes, Shay and Vincent subsequently resigned from the P&Z.

Clarke claims the defendants discussed city matters at a meeting of the grassroots group Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach, putting the city in danger of being in violation of Sunshine Laws regarding open meetings.

Clarke attended the first CNOBB meeting July 11, as did Commissioner Jake Spooner. However, Spooner left the meeting before the discussion on matters that apparently led to the suit.

At an Aug. 7 city meeting, commissioners voted 3-1 for Mayor Bill Shearon to execute a contract with Watrous for the investigation, not to exceed $5,000.

At the Aug. 17 meeting, Watrous addressed the group from the podium, while Barfield attended the meeting via Skype.

Vice Mayor John Chappie, chairing the meeting in Shearon’s absence, asked Watrous if he had any concerns or requests for the commission.

Watrous said the complaint was filed, his team has reviewed recordings and “voluminous emails” submitted by the defendants and the next step would be to seek injunctive relief.

However, he said the strategy or what direction the case will go would require “a crystal ball,” as it is dependent on the actions of the defendants.

He said any questions from commission that he thinks go beyond attorney/client privilege would require a shade meeting.

Commissioner Jake Spooner asked about a timeline for the case.

Barfield responded that these types of cases are usually expedited by the court and his team “will be seeking the best interest of the city and the citizens of Bradenton Beach.”

However, Shearon said in an Aug. 17 phone interview with The Islander that he has some ethical concerns with the suit.

“Where I’m having a problem is that the city is joining suit with a citizen, Jack Clarke, to sue its own board members,” Shearon said.

He said as far as he knows, there is “nothing in the books” requiring the city to back its board members, but he thinks the city should protect them.

“From my perspective, the city should be protecting any of its board members,” Shearon said. “It’s up to the court to decide if they did anything wrong.”

In an Aug. 17 email to The Islander, city attorney Ricinda Perry wrote that the Florida Supreme Court has held that for public officials to get representation at public expense, the litigation must arise out of or in connection with the performance of their official duties and serve a public purpose.

“The CNOBB members chose to hold meetings that were never sanctioned by the City. The defendants to the pending litigation also disregarded legal advice specific to their CNOBB actions and were provided with training to follow the Sunshine Law. It would be a dangerous precedent for the city to pay for representation of any board member or elected official who willfully goes against the advice of counsel to subvert or violate state law,” Perry wrote.

Additionally, Perry wrote that joining Clarke in the suit against city board members “does not pose a conflict since the commission chose to take a strategic step at limiting the city’s legal exposure and liability from the actions of these board and committee members.”

Perry said Clarke chose not to name the city because of the commission’s decision to join the suit, although she initially did not identify him as the complainant.

Perry concluded the Aug. 17 email, saying, “The city cannot turn a blind eye to individuals who place the city in peril and should always be proactive at protecting itself and the taxpayers when facing litigation.”

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