The discovery has ended.
John Metz, former Bradenton Beach Planning and Zoning Board member, was deposed July 2 in a lawsuit filed in August 2017 by ex-Mayor Jack Clarke and joined by the city against six former city board members alleging violations of Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
Metz, the only defendant with an attorney, was the last of nearly 20 depositions taken since the suit’s inception.
The lawsuit alleges violations of state statutes governing open meetings and public records laws by former board members Metz, Reed Mapes, Tjet Martin, Patty Shay, and Bill and wife Rose Vincent, who were then members of the now-defunct grass-roots group Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach.
When the lawsuit was initiated, city attorney Ricinda Perry claimed recordings of CNOBB meetings indicated the defendants discussed matters that could come before them as board members.
Discussions allegedly were held July 25, 2017, at a CNOBB steering committee meeting, about a citizen-initiated referendum to prohibit parking garages in the city charter.
The city claims parking garages were a reasonably foreseeable topic of discussion for the P&Z board and, at a June 20 pretrial hearing, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs’ summary judgment on the matter.
However, Metz claimed July 2 that the Sunshine Law is a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech.
The Sunshine Law states that members of the same government agency cannot discuss matters that might come before them outside of public meetings. This includes emails, text messages and phone calls.
When asked by the city’s attorney, Robert Watrous, if he believes the Sunshine Law is unconstitutional, Metz responded, “Yes.”
Watrous expanded his question to ask if Metz deemed the law “uniquely unconstitutional to you in this setting,” or, generally unconstitutional.
“To me, it’s based on the situation I’m in, given that the allegations that I understand in this lawsuit charge me with a civil penalty for petitioning the government, which is one of my fundamental rights to do, through the initiative process we were using.”
Metz was referring to the defendants’ claim that mention of the parking garage only was made about a possible charter amendment to prohibit parking garages by CNOBB, but removed from the organization’s list of proposed amendments.
CNOBB used the state referendum process to put three initiatives on the ballot in 2017 — and the electorate approved the charter amendments.
Metz said July 2 that the statute does not require review of petitions by the P&Z board. Therefore, he says, the CNOBB/P&Z members did not violate the law at their July 25 meeting.
“I think it’s extremely vague. It gives you no guidance into what you are supposed to do,” Metz said July 2 of the Sunshine Law. “I think we find ourselves in this quagmire because of that. There is no clear guidance where reasonable people can try to figure out what they can and can’t do. And I believe that it certainly chills free speech and a right to assemble and petition.”
Watrous asked Metz if he is aware that certain constitutional rights can be waived by voluntary agreement, including the oath Metz signed upon joining the P&Z board in 2014, which stipulates he would “support, protect and defend the Constitution and government of the United States and the state of Florida.”
Metz responded, “I swore to defend the Constitution of the United States and I think that’s part of this case.”
Watrous then asked, “And the state of Florida, too, correct?” to which Metz responded, “Yes.”
“I believe in the Florida Constitution there is a right to petition your government,” Metz said. “Certainly, in the First Amendment there is a right to free association and there is a right to free speech. And I think all of those, under the facts of this particular case, are being infringed.”
Discovery ended July 5.
A trial is planned for the week of July 15.
A Bradenton Beach man arrested for driving impaired pleaded no contest April 1 and was sentenced to 12 months of probation.
Twelfth Circuit Judge Mark Singer found Robert A. Simpson, 51, guilty and ordered the probation, including a counterattack program, victim impact panel and medical evaluation and, if necessary, treatment.
The judge also ordered Simpson’s vehicle impounded for 10 days and driver’s license suspended for six months with a business purposes exception.
A Manatee County sheriff’s deputy arrested Simpson for driving under the influence following a road sobriety test after police determined he caused a two-vehicle crash Jan. 2 in the 2200 block of Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach.
Simpson exhibited signs of impairment but breath tests measured no blood-alcohol content. Florida law prohibits driving under the influence of drugs, not detected in the breath test, as well as drivers with blood-alcohol content exceeding 0.08 percent.
Simpson was assessed court costs and fines of $1,971, of which he paid $696 as of July 2.
“I fought the law and the law won.”
May Galloway summarized Jeremy Thomas’ day in court with the lyrics from “I Fought the Law,” by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets, in a July 3 text to The Islander.
Twelfth Circuit Judge Doug Henderson fined Thomas $100 earlier in the day, finding “sufficient evidence” he violated state law aimed at curtailing derelict vessels.
Bradenton Beach Police Officer Eric Hill ticketed Thomas in March for the 30-foot 1977 cabin cruiser he owns with having no effective means of propulsion.
Thomas lives with Galloway in a community of about 40 boats anchored south of the Historic Bridge Street Pier, where he and his wife own five boats, one in which they live.
The July decision came after Henderson postponed ruling in June, giving Thomas 30 days to make repairs and advising him to bring evidence of “the motor running” to the July hearing.
At the hearing, Thomas told Henderson he made the repairs “a couple days ago” and offered the judge a video of the motor in operation.
Henderson wasn’t interested in the video after Hill told the court that a running motor was not enough — the boat must move.
Hill checked on the vessel June 25 and was told it was not operational. The officer returned July 2, but there was no one on the vessel.
Henderson asked Thomas if the boat had moved.
Thomas replied no, adding he would have moved it had he known it was necessary.
After the hearing, Lt. John Cosby, who oversees the marine patrols in Bradenton Beach, was buoyed by the court victory.
Enforcement is important from a legal, safety and cost standpoint, he said.
“It’s the law,” Cosby said, adding taxpayers, through the West Coast Inland Navigational District and the county, foot the bill to remove abandoned boats.
In a storm, if a boat can’t move, it can become flying debris, endanger lives and destroy property.
“Plus, people are tired of looking at it and dealing with it,” Cosby said.
Thomas’ no-means-of-propulsion citation was his second such offense.
In September 2018, Hill cited Thomas for the same infraction on the same vessel.
Similarly, 12th Circuit Judge Renee Inman adjudicated Thomas guilty of the boating infraction.
She fined him $90 and, as of July 3, the fine was unpaid.
According to online records, Thomas’ nonpayment was referred to the state financial recovery department, which threatened a driver’s license suspension and additional fines.
Galloway and Thomas complain the BBPD and Hill have harassed them, woke them up in the early morning hours and run over their anchor lines while operating the city boat.
BBPD officers deny Hill has harassed the couple.
Cosby said the department has “an issue” with Galloway and Thomas because they continue to fail to comply with boating laws.
West Manatee Fire Rescue’s inspector dealt with a flurry of fireworks requests the week of July 4.
First came a July 1 request by a Cortez businessman seeking a permit for fireworks to be launched from a barge in Sarasota Bay.
Then July 5, following an abbreviated July 4 fireworks display at the Sandbar Restaurant, the Anna Maria restaurant put in a request for an improved show for that evening.
Sandbar’s July 4 fireworks show had been the only display in the WMFR district until a garage-full of fireworks discovered in June in Cortez sent John Banyas searching for a permit.
The fire district includes Anna Maria Island, Cortez and parts of west Bradenton.
Banyas owns the home where the fireworks were stored. He also owns the Swordfish Grill, N.E. Taylor Boatworks, Cortez Bait & Seafood and Cortez Kitchen. He contacted WMFR inspector Rodney Kwiatkowski July 1, seeking a Manatee County permit.
Banyas’ overture to the county and WMFR came after a June 12 inspection where Kwiatkowski and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office bomb squad discovered 697 cases of fireworks in the garage of a house owned by Banyas and rented to Swordfish manager Bob Slicker.
According to Kwiatkowski, the fireworks — which can have a “devastating potential” if ignited inside a home — must be stored 1,000 feet from residences, churches and schools.
WMFR signed off on Banyas’s Cortez Bait & Seafoodcounty permit for a July 5 fireworks show after checking out the pyrotechnic company.
Sky Candy, of Riverview, was licensed to launch Banyas’ display July 5 — a day later than previous holiday displays in Cortez, according to Kwiatkowski.
In previous years, the displays launched from a barge in Sarasota Bay near the Banyas’ businesses were performed without permits.
The Islander asked Banyas June 28 in a text message about prior fireworks displays in Cortez — a message to which he did not respond.
The fireworks, if shot from navigable waters, also may have required a U.S. Coast Guard marine permit — requiring 135-day notice to the Coast Guard.
According to Coast Guard-Cortez Chief Zachary Gray, some events require the permit, some do not and the St. Petersburg Sector handles such requests.
Kwiatkowski said July 5 he was checking on the requirement.
Texts and calls to Banyas and Slicker July 5 failed to produce a response at press time.
Kwiatkowski, who monitors permitted displays, oversaw the July 4 display at the Sandbar Restaurant and acknowledged other numerous unpermitted and dangerous displays on the beach.
He also is seeking an ordinance to allow fire officials enforcement authority over the unpermitted displays.
Kwiatkowski thanked The Islander for “the heat” and Banyas for responding with a request for a permit.
“It’s progress. They say these things happen one at a time,” he said.
“We interrupted their show, so to speak.”
Sgt. Mike Jones, who heads the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Anna Maria substation, said the July 4 holiday, including the parade, festival and fireworks “went exceptionally well,” but for one incident on the beach.
Revelers without a permit “brought attention” to themselves at Coconut and Gulf Drive on the beach, Jones said, where MCSO deputies caught them shooting illegal fireworks in the dunes and ordered them to stop. They did and there was no seizure, he added.
Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer also reported enforcement of illegal fireworks.
He said police were alerted by a complaint and observed a group of celebrants launching fireworks too close to children. He said officers confiscated 12-13 boxes of fireworks.
“We had a large crowd and everybody behaved,” Tokajer said, adding medical calls for heat exposure became a primary concern on the holiday as the heat index was predicted to reach 112 degrees.
Illegal fireworks were launched up and down the beach in Bradenton Beach, but no one complained.
BBPD enforces the fireworks laws, according to Detective Sgt. Lenard Diaz, only if calls about the pyrotechnic displays are dispatched to the officers.
Diaz also said two kayakers were brought to safety by a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rescue boat. Their kayak capsized near the Longboat Pass Bridge and the men floated near the bridge pylons until FWC arrived, he added.
BBPD, HBPD and MCSO reported thousands of visitors and no arrests July 4.
West Manatee Fire Rescue inspector Rodney Kwiatkowski said there were “a few hiccups,” which delayed the start of the permitted fireworks display on the beach at the Sandbar Restaurant, 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria.
He said a number of boats encroached on the setback required for the display — “coming too close to shore for our comfort.”
A security line keeps people a distance of 420-feet from the fireworks, Kwiatkowski said, adding the “sheriff got on its bullhorn” and instructed the boats to motor farther from shore.
They did. And the show went on.
“It was safe,” Kwiatkowski said, adding, “Was it long enough? You be the judge.”
The Sandbar pyrotechnic display on the Fourth was abbreviated — a mistake by the fireworks company — but the company and Sandbar management arranged a bigger show for July 5 and WMFR, MCSO and the city permitted the followup show.
Authorities say a driver in a black Volkswagen spun out of a Holmes Beach bar, sped south on Gulf Drive and nearly struck another vehicle head-on in Bradenton Beach.
The driver, Erika Chetlain, 31, of Bradenton, was arrested at 11:52 p.m. June 19 for driving under the influence of alcohol and refusing to submit to a blood-alcohol test.
According to an HBPD report, Officer Alan DeSantis observed the Volkswagen fishtail from the parking lot of the Anchor Inn, 3007 Gulf Drive, and followed the vehicle. He clocked the vehicle at 46 mph in a 35-mph zone.
Near the S-curve at 22nd Street in Bradenton Beach, DeSantis reported the Volkswagen crossed the center lines into oncoming traffic and caused the driver of a northbound vehicle to swerve to avoid a crash.
The officer activated his emergency lights and stopped the motorist at 17th Street North in Bradenton Beach.
DeSantis then called HBPD Officer Alexander Hurt to perform a DUI investigation while Bradenton Beach Police Officer John Tsakiri assisted with traffic control.
As he interviewed Chetlain, Hurt noted signs of impairment and asked if she would take a field sobriety test.
Chetlain agreed to the test but told Hurt she had a bad knee and other medical problems. So the officer requested she perform a modified test, which she did, according to the report.
Hurt then called on emergency medical services, who cleared Chetlain for testing at the scene.
Meanwhile, DeSantis inventoried items in the vehicle, which included numerous empty cans and bottles of alcohol.
After the roadside test, Hurt took Chetlain to the HBPD station, where she refused to submit to a blood-alcohol breath test, and then to Manatee Memorial Hospital in
Bradenton due to her “high state of intoxication.” She refused treatment at the hospital, according to the report.
From there, Chetlain was transported to the Manatee County jail. She posted $620 bond and was released.
Chetlain entered a not-guilty plea July 2 in 12th Circuit Court through attorney Brett McIntosh.
Her next court date is at 8:25 a.m. Monday, July 22, at the Manatee County Judicial Center, 1051 Manatee Ave., W., Bradenton.
Time is running out to save 97 Australian pine trees marked for removal at Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach.
Manatee County commissioners voted 4-2 June 19 to remove and replace the trees at Coquina, a public beach the county manages and maintains, to make way for the first phase of a parking lot improvement project at the south end and on an access road.
With six trees chopped down already, the county is set to remove 103 Australian pine trees in total — more than 10% of the 991 Australian pines at Coquina — for phase one. Another 129 trees are planned for removal in phase two.
For now, the 97 marked trees remain standing while the county works to provide the city of Bradenton Beach with its finalized landscape plans for replacement trees.
City commissioners had directed building official Steve Gilbert to request a tree replacement plan from the county and issue a stop-work order on the project if the county failed to comply. City commissioners also ordered Gilbert to investigate whether the city could revise or revoke the construction permit for the project.
Gilbert wrote in a July 3 email to The Islander that the county provided the city with a draft landscape plan June 28 showing the replacement of 103 Australian pines with 83 green buttonwood trees, 10 gumbo limbo trees and 10 shady lady black olive trees. The county plans to plant the trees in the grassy area near the playground and between the access road and parking.
Bradenton Beach’s land development code requires the replacement trees, which can be any species but palms, have a minimum diameter of one-and-a-half-inch caliper and a 10-foot height when planted.
Gilbert said the removal of the Australian pine trees remains on hold until the county provides final plans for replacement, as of July 3.
However, he also said the city cannot revoke the construction permit for the project if the county adheres to the city’s LDC.
“If any applicant is working on an approved permit, where they are in compliance with the land development code, the city has no right to revoke the permit,” Gilbert wrote in an email to The Islander.
Public response to removals
Public opposition to the project has rung loud since the county’s plan surfaced in May, culminating in a petition with 1,010 signatures opposing the project. Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie delivered the petition to county commissioners before the vote in June.
People also shared their frustrations on social media.
Of the 277 comments on Facebook July 3 regarding The Islander’s story about the Coquina plan, only four comments supported taking out Australian pine trees.
Many people commented “Save the trees!” while others referenced Joni Mitchell’s hit song “Big Yellow Taxi,” which begins with the lyrics, “They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot.”
More people aired their opinions on The Islander’s June 26 Facebook post about the tree removals.
“Desecrating one of the most beautiful, natural beaches in Florida is a tragedy. For decades people have been quite content to park and use this natural wonder. Such a shame!” Linda MacKay wrote June 25 on The Islander’s Facebook page.
“Manatee County is ruining Manatee County!” Lori Giudice Farnsworth, of Bradenton, wrote.
“The county’s few voted for this! Not the voice of the residents!” Cynthia Raines Langston, of Holmes Beach, posted on Facebook.