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Suit demands Anna Maria's councilman's e-mails and computers

BRADENTON — A Sarasota legal consultant last week filed a lawsuit seeking the e-mails and computers of an Anna Maria city commissioner and planning and zoning board member.

Michael Barfield asked 12th Circuit Court Judge Edward Nicholas in papers filed Thursday to hold an emergency hearing and order the “Clerk of the Court to take immediate possession of all computers, laptops or other electronic devices utilized by (Commissioner Harry Stoltzfus and board member Jim Conoly) and to preserve such equipment pending further Order of the Court.”

Barfield, who has been making public records requests to Anna Maria City Clerk Alice Baird over the past several weeks, said in a telephone interview Friday he found it necessary to file the lawsuit to ensure all public records are produced.

“Commissioner Stoltzfus made four productions of records and each time he would say, ‘This is it,’ ” he said, “and when we saw each production we would notice some discrepancy and ask for clarification. Then we discovered he deleted e-mails. That was the final straw of credibility.”

Stoltzfus did not return a telephone message left at his home.

As for Conoly, Barfield said he recently discovered Conoly had disposed of his computer at the landfill.

“That was alarming because we learned he did that after the requests for public records,” Barfield said. “Since then I was told he said he was only joking and didn’t take it to the landfill, but that he gave it away to some charity.” When reached by telephone Friday, Conoly said, he “was advised not to comment on the issue.”

The 23-page request to the court for immediate action outlines Barfield’s claims that the two city officials have failed to produce all of the e-mail communications regarding city business between each other and “several other Anna Maria residents.”

Barfield said he was seeking the confiscation of the electronic devices because of Stoltzfus’ admission of deleting some e-mails and Conoly saying he donated his computer to the Salvation Army.

As of Friday night, Nicholas has yet to grant a hearing on the injunction.

The news of the content of Stoltzfus’ e-mails that were released has rocked the normal serenity of this small island community over the past several weeks. The e-mails revealed the first-term commissioner’s dissatisfaction with the planning and zoning board’s interpretation of the comprehensive plan and land development regulations in regard to several properties being developed by the Pine Avenue Restoration Project.

“I’ve been trying to reconcile what I consider an unsafe confluence of vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle traffic created by 315/317 Pine Avenue, with the goals, objectives, and policies of the Plan and the codes, and am unable to do so,” Stoltzfus wrote in an e-mail to Mayor Fran Barford.

In one e-mail to an address name of LuvAnnaMaria, the commissioner questioned what it would take to convince his fellow commissioners to impose a building moratorium on Pine Avenue. “A petition? A demonstration? Shut down Pine Avenue by taking up every legal parking space on the street? (You know, we could legally blockade 315/317 Pine,)” the e-mail read.

In a series of other e-mails, Stoltzfus learns of a possible lawsuit against the city for approving the Pine Avenue Restoration Project development and comments his willingness to anonymously contribute money to pay for the lawsuit.

Barfield said he asked for the e-mail records because it is his and every other citizen’s right under the Florida Constitution. “I just want the enforcement of the law declared by the citizens that this is of paramount importance of the highest order,” he said. Barfield said he was concerned about elected officials considering city business outside the public’s knowledge.

One e-mail shows Stoltzfus asking a resident to communicate with Commission Chairman John Quam about an issue pending before the commission and then report back to him, Barfield said. “If I went to a meeting I wouldn’t have known that happened,” he said.

“We also learned he offered money under the table to fund a lawsuit on a matter pending before the commission,” Barfield said. “That’s just some of the power behind the public records law.”

Barfield called information the currency of democracy. “If you don’t know what’s going on in your government,” he said, “we’re penniless and powerless to know the truth.”