Bradenton Beach sunshine suit heats up, trial set

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Bill Vincent, former Bradenton Beach Planning and Zoning Board member and founder of the now-defunct Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach, prepares Dec. 12 to be deposed at Vincent M. Lucentes & Associates Court Reporters in Bradenton. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes

What started as grass-roots organizing has turned into a lawsuit costing taxpayers more than $100,000.

But the city of Bradenton Beach says Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law cannot be taken lightly.

The suit against six residents was initiated by ex-Mayor Jack Clarke and joined by the city at its Aug. 7, 2017, city commission meeting, when commissioners voted 3-1 to join the suit.

Bill Vincent, the founder of the now-defunct Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach, was deposed Dec. 12. The city alleges the grass-roots organization held private meetings as a “shadow government,” according to Robert Watrous, the city’s attorney for the lawsuit.

“All I wanted to do was start a grass-roots organization for people in the community to meet and talk about positive change for the city we love,” said Vincent, a former Bradenton Beach Planning and Zoning Board member.

During his deposition, hundreds of pages of emails, transcripts, text messages and other forms of social media communication were provided as part of the discovery process.

The case is set for trial March 2019.

Mediation between the city and the former board members who are defendants in the suit is set for Feb. 25 with attorney and mediator John D. Hawkins.

“We believe the politics is separate from any Sunshine Law violation,” John Metz, a defendant in the lawsuit and former Bradenton Beach Planning and Zoning Board member, said Dec. 8.

“Maybe there will be a mediation to figure things out,” Metz added.

Metz, Vincent, Rose Vincent, Reed Mapes, Tjet Martin and Patty Shay face allegations by Clarke and the city that as board members they violated Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law by discussing city matters without properly noticing the public during CNOBB meetings.

Metz’s attorney, Thomas Shults was set to depose city land-planner Alan Garrett Jan. 4, 2019, Clarke Jan. 7, and city clerk Terri Sanclemente Jan. 9.

With the exception of Metz, the defendants are representing themselves without an attorney. According to city attorney Ricinda Perry, they are “piggybacking” on Shults’ defense.

“There was discussion about maybe settling the matter,” Perry said during a Dec. 6, 2018, city commission meeting. “The same offers that have been out there are still available, to a large extent, to the defendants. However, it appears there is not that much movement. But, we’ll see if we can somehow, through a mediator, convince the defendants to basically apologize and come forward with an offer for the perceived violations of the sunshine.”

Perry also will be deposed at a date to be determined. Due to scheduling issues, her deposition, originally planned for Dec. 17, 2018, was postponed.

At a case management conference Dec. 3, Judge Lon Arend of the Manatee County 12th Judicial Circuit Court ordered a nonjury trial the week of March 18.

Judge Edward Nicholas is assigned to the case going forward in 2019.

Additionally, a hearing for a motion of partial summary judgment for legal fees is planned for Jan. 31 at the Manatee County Judicial Center, 1051 Manatee Ave. W. Bradenton.

When an investigation was initiated in 2017, the commission voted to execute a contract with Watrous and affiliated paralegal Michael Barfield, not to exceed $5,000.

Since then, the lawsuit has cost the city more than $110,000.

“I just don’t understand why they would let it go on this long and continue to cost taxpayers over something that could have been resolved with an internal investigation,” Martin said Dec. 5. “I think we are all ready for some resolution.”

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