Bradenton Beach sunshine suit prompts payment questions

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Ex-Bradenton Beach Mayor Jack Clarke arrives at the Bradenton courthouse for a hearing Aug. 8 in the civil suit he initiated against a group of city board members. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes

It’s complicated.

Hearings, depositions and discovery in a case brought by a former Bradenton Beach mayor and joined by the city, begs the question, “Who is paying?”

Following the advice of city attorney Ricinda Perry in August 2017, the city voted to join a lawsuit initiated by ex-Mayor Jack Clarke against six former city board members alleging violations of Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Laws.

The commissioners also voted not to exceed $5,000 in expenditures on the lawsuit.

At an Aug. 7, 2017, city commission meeting, when commissioners voted 3-1 to join the suit, Perry said, “I want to make sure the city is aware that Jack Clarke is what they deem to be a representative client, and that he is not responsible for any fees incurred from his firm in connection with this particular matter.”

Since then, costs for the suit have skyrocketed.

As of Aug. 2, nearly a year later, the lawsuit has cost the city $80,085.80.

If the defendants prevail, the legal bills are likely to be paid with taxpayer dollars.

But since Clarke is not a city official, people have wondered who is footing his bill — if there is one — in the suit.

At an Aug. 2 city commission meeting, Commissioner Randy White, who was subpoenaed for a deposition and to provide documents by the complainants — the city and Clarke — in connection with the defendants before and during his time as a commissioner, asked Mayor John Chappie if the city is paying Clarke’s legal expenses.

“I have no idea what Jack Clarke’s costs are,” Chappie said, without directly answering White’s question.

Invoices from Clarke and the city’s attorney for the suit, Robert Watrous and paralegal Michael Barfield, are redacted due to attorney-client privilege, so the matter has remained a mystery in the public records.

However, a June 21 invoice from Watrous showed a $682.50 credit to the city that, according to Barfield Aug. 9, was paid by Clarke.

At an Aug. 8 hearing to compel evidence from Clarke, 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Lon Arend ruled that Watrous, as Clarke’s counsel, must provide a letter explaining the categorization process Clarke used for an 833-page document he provided in discovery. Additionally, Watrous must assist defendant’s John Metz and Reed Mapes’s attorney, Thomas Shults, if he requires clarification of the document.

Arend also ruled that a “privilege log” of communications between Clarke, Perry and Watrous for the time preceding the lawsuit — Jan. 1, 2017-Aug. 7, 2017 — be provided.

A privilege log is designed to provide a party with information to evaluate a claim and for the court to rule on such a claim without having to review documents that would violate attorney-client privilege.

According to Metz, his attorney is looking for possible communications between Perry, Clarke, Watrous and Barfield about the lawsuit before its inception.

When asked Aug. 9 by The Islander who was paying Clarke’s fees for the Aug. 8 hearing and other associated costs, Barfield said Clarke is responsible for fees that apply only to Clarke.

“Where it’s solely about Jack Clarke, he is being billed,” Barfield said. “Not the taxpayers.”

Barfield said the city and Clarke’s interests diverge in some matters as Bradenton Beach is involved in the suit to “inoculate itself from the actions of the rogue board members.” He said the city is trying to protect itself form being sued by outside interests.

When asked to define Clarke’s role as a “representative client,” Barfield said, “In Perry’s context, he’s a representative client in terms of the Sunshine Law, while the city has more specific interests for compliance, including ensuring it recovers some of its costs in the case. Politically, that’s a different animal.”

Metz said Aug. 8 that as the suit continues, “There will be a lot coming out of the woodwork about what happened when this suit was initiated because it is a bad-faith deal.”

He added, “Jack Clarke may claim he is a representative client, but he initiated this with Perry and (he) should be paying.”

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