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Date of Issue: April 09, 2008

Newspaper, city dispute returns to court

A case that began with a dispute over public information laws and evolved into a squabble over fees was scheduled to resume in a Manatee County courtroom this week.

A hearing in the dispute between The Islander and the city of Bradenton Beach was scheduled to take place as the newspaper went to press.

A circuit court judge months ago ruled on public records and Government-in-the-Sunshine Law aspects of the legal dispute between the newspaper and the city.

The Islander had sued alleging that the city violated public records and Sunshine laws in its handling of a sexual harassment complaint in early 2007.

Last November, Manatee County Circuit Judge Peter Dubensky issued an order granting in part and denying in part The Islander’s claims. Dubensky found that the city withheld records from the newspaper, which eventually were provided, but found insufficient evidence that officials violated the Sunshine law that requires government to conduct its business in the open.

Dubensky’s ruling set up a new round of court filings and hearings over who should pay the legal fees.

The Islander filed a motion to collect more than $75,000 in fees, but the court granted $5,600 in attorney’s fees and $255 of costs from the city.

The city also filed a motion to collect more than $50,000 from The Islander, but the court denied the motion and awarded the city no fees.

Now the newspaper has filed a motion to collect from the city the money spent to challenge the government’s claim for fees. The motion, set for a hearing at 4 p.m. Monday, April 7, was based on the paper’s argument that the city’s claim was frivolous.

The Islander also has appealed Nicholas’ order granting the newspaper just a fraction of the fees it expended in following the lawsuit to its conclusion.

On April 3, the Bradenton Beach City Commission, with the exception of an absent Commissioner John Shaughnessy, discussed the paper’s appeal with city attorney Ricinda Perry during an open meeting.

Perry asked commissioners whether they wanted her to file a response to the appeal when appropriate, and their affirmation was unanimous.

Perry said Nicholas “was very meticulous” and the paper would not likely be successful on appeal.

City attorney Ralf Brookes added, “I can’t imagine any valid claim.”

The city had argued in circuit court that the city should not be obligated to pay for the paper’s search for records after withheld documents were turned over in late June 2007. The case went on into the fall.

Nicholas, in his ruling, agreed. “Nor should the city be obligated to pay for the plaintiff’s unsuccessful effort to prove a Sunshine Law violation,” he wrote.

Commissioners last week also agreed with Perry’s recommendation that the city not appeal Nicholas’ order denying their request to recover legal fees from The Islander.

Perry said she felt the city was entitled to fees but “the court made its decision.… Unfortunately, The Islander decided to appeal.”

The newspaper’s lawsuit stemmed from several public information requests regarding the sexual harassment investigation and the subsequent resignation of an employee.

In late March, on an unrelated matter, the paper filed a public records request for a copy of the tape recording and a transcript of a shade meeting between city commissioners and their attorney to discuss a settlement agreement with Karen and Jake Gallo, the owners of the now defunct city pier restaurant that operated under the Bradenton Beach Pier Cafe Inc.

The request was made verbally to the city clerk’s office on March 25. The city informed The Islander that the transcript was available Monday, April 7, as the newspaper went to press.