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Date of Issue: May 19, 2005

Commission slams door on public access to city attorney

Holmes Beach city commissioners agreed at their May 10 meeting that the public should not have direct access to the city attorney.

Claiming that such access has been "abused" in the past, City Commissioner Rich Bohnenberger said he didn't think the city should pay the city attorney to meet with private individuals over issues.

Commissioner Roger Lutz, an attorney, agreed. "It's just not done," he said, noting that an individual who discussed an issue with the city attorney could later make the attorney a witness in a lawsuit.

Mayor Carol Whitmore defended her current policy that only department heads can have direct access to the city attorney. Any requests from citizens to speak directly with the city attorney require her approval, and she said she's only approved about 10 requests in the eight years she's been in office.

"Citizens can't just call the city attorney" to expend time at city expense, she said. "They have to get permission from me." Besides, allowing some members of the public to directly access the city attorney has been "going on" for quite a long time, she added, well before she became mayor.

"It's been a standard policy that the public could talk to the city attorney if the department head requested a meeting and the mayor approved," Whitmore noted.

Even City Attorney Michelle Hall agreed that, on occasion, a resident may have a request to a city staff member that needs to be answered by the city attorney.

In that case, said Commission Chairperson Sandy Haas-Martens, the staff member calls the city attorney, who responds to the staff member, who then responds to the citizen.

Hall observed that under this procedure, something may occasionally be lost in the translation.

Too bad. The commission consensus was that no citizen can directly call the city attorney, even with permission from the mayor.

Whitmore said she was "disappointed" with the commission consensus, particularly since public access to the city attorney has not been abused during her administration.

Past mayors, including Bohnenberger, have also allowed members of the public to speak directly with the city attorney, she contended.

Island Baptist Church annexation

Whitmore explained to the commission that the Island Baptist Church, which straddles the city limits of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria, wants annexation into Holmes Beach. She said she's had City Attorney Patricia Petruff doing research to determine the legal steps for annexation.

"They want Holmes Beach, but I need to see if the commission wants them and to determine what's legal. It's never been done before."

In addition, noted Whitmore, there is a condominium building at the south end of the city that is split by the Bradenton Beach-Holmes Beach dividing line. One of the condominium owners has asked for annexation into Holmes Beach.

Haas-Martens said she believed the church first has to come to the commission to make a formal request. A letter asking for a meeting of commissioners and city attorneys is insufficient.

Agreed, said Lutz, who said he would "welcome" the church, but not if annexation was going to cost city taxpayers. The church does not pay any taxes "so I don't want to spend any taxpayer money." That includes legal fees for attorneys from both cities, he added.

Annexation, according to Lutz, would likely cost between $5,000 and $10,000, so "let the church spend the money," not the city.

The commission consensus was to take no further action until the church makes a formal presentation for annexation.

Whitmore said she still wanted to know the procedures because of the condominiums at the south end of the city. Haas-Martens added that some houses along White Avenue at the north end of the city are split between Holmes Beach and Anna Maria.

All the more reason to at least get the legal procedures for annexation from one city to another understood for future reference, responded Whitmore.


Bohnenberger questioned the number of signs at Skinny's Place at the Gulf Drive-Manatee Avenue intersection. He said he's seen four or five signs out in front of the location at one time. He also questioned Skinny's need for a special exception permit.

Whitmore said it's a code enforcement issue that the city is trying to clear up before any citation is issued.

"Well, my suggestion is tell them no more special exceptions until they clean up their act," responded Bohnenberger.

Great idea, rejoined Whitmore. "If the commission would say that to Skinny's, that would make my job a lot easier."