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Date of Issue: September 20, 2007

Bradenton Beach commissioners vote to proceed with trial

Bradenton Beach city commissioners voted Sept. 14 to proceed with a trial in a suit alleging city officials violated the state’s public records statutes and Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

Testimony in that trial is set to resume Sept. 26.

The suit, filed by The Islander newspaper earlier this year, stems from the city’s handling of a sexual harassment complaint filed by Gail Garneau, a Bradenton Beach code enforcement officer and planning department staff member, against Ed McAdam, who headed the city’s building department. McAdam resigned soon after he learned of the complaint against him.

Last week, The Islander attorney Kendra Presswood, daughter of newspaper publisher Bonner Joy, proposed a settlement in an effort to “amicably resolve this matter prior to the continuation of trial.”

The proposal stated, “Given the clear violations of the Public Records Act, which will be easily demonstrated at the continued hearing, we hope your client will consider this proposal seriously so that further expenses to the taxpayers of the city may be avoided.

The Islander is willing to resolve all of its claims by filing a voluntary dismissal of this action in exchange for the following: 1. The city’s agreement to abide by Florida’s open-government laws in the future; 2. Payment of my client’s attorneys fees and costs to date; 3. The city’s agreement to have the city commissioners, mayor, staff and various board members participate annually in a minimum of two hours of education on Florida’s open-government laws.”

On Sept. 14, Mayor John Chappie, city attorney Ricinda Perry and city commissioners Janie Robertson, Bill Shearon and John Shaughnessy met to discuss the proposed agreement. Commissioner Mike Pierce was absent.

A properly held closed meeting took place for about an hour at city hall. After the session, the commissioners, on motions by Robertson, voted unanimously to “reject the settlement offer from Kendra Presswood” and also to direct the city attorney to “continue the trial … and to pursue all attorney’s fees and costs incurred by the city to defend the above-stated cause of action.”

The trial, by order of 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Peter Dubensky, will continue next Wednesday, beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the Manatee County Courthouse.

Dubensky opened the trial Aug. 16, hearing testimony from witnesses over parts of that day and Aug. 17.

The judge did not allow attorneys to delve into the substance of Garneau’s complaint, but rather instructed them to keep the focus on the newspaper’s allegation that city officials withheld public records and circumvented the Sunshine Law.

Garneau made her complaint against McAdam in late February, informing Chappie verbally and then formalizing the complaint in an undated letter.

The complaint prompted Chappie to order an investigation by Perry. Meetings ensued between Garneau, Perry and Chappie; meetings between McAdam, Perry and Chappie; telephone calls between Perry and city commissioners; and a special city commission meeting at which McAdam’s resignation was accepted on March 8.

The Islander filed the suit April 11 because, despite a series of quick actions in late February and early March to respond to the sexual harassment complaint, the public record was scant and there was no public discussion on the matter or on the acceptance of McAdam’s resignation.

In the earlier trial testimony, city officials said that the records that have been released are the only public records that exist.

Presswood, however, argued that even if that is the case, city officials violated the public records laws by withholding some documents for several months.

“March went by. April went by. May went by. Most of June went by,” Presswood told the judge, referring to the lack of production by the city.

“There are public records that weren’t produced for over three months,” she added. At the end of June, the city provided the newspaper with several documents pertaining to the case, but no report on the investigation of the harassment complaint.

City officials also previously testified that they did not have private discussions in violation of the Sunshine Law.

When the trial resumes next week, Bradenton Beach city clerk Nora Idso is expected to testify.