Appellate court sides with Trailer Estates

MANATEE -- An appeals court has sided with the board of Trailer Estates Park and Recreation District in a long-running case about the park’s adherence to open government laws.

In an opinion issued Dec. 16, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal affirmed a lower court decision of last year.

The lower court had ruled in favor of Trailer Estates, and against plaintiffs Mary Lou Smith and Sharon Denson, who had alleged a pattern of non-compliance in violation of Florida’s “Sunshine Law,” which requires open meetings and records of public agencies.

The women then appealed.

“We’re pleased with the court ruling, and I thought the court did a good job reviewing the briefs,” said Mark Barnebey, the attorney representing Trailer Estates Park, 1903 69th Ave. W.

“As you will see, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed...the trial court’s judgment in favor of the district on the over 150 alleged claims by Ms. Smith and Ms. Denson,” Barnebey said Tuesday.

The court’s one-page order, however, warns that the matter is “not final until time expires to file rehearing motion and, if filed, determined.” When asked if she intended to file an appeal, Denson referred all questions to her attorney, Kevin Hennessy, who did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Also declining comment was Martha Brauer, chairman of Trailer Estates’ Board of Trustees.

The lower court judge, Janette Dunnigan, wrote in an order dated Nov. 3, 2010, “While the evidence clearly shows that there is a need for improvement in the maintenance of its records, it does not establish that Trailer Estates was a ‘reluctant public agency’ that wrongfully denied access to its public records.”

In an accompanying order, the appeals court also denied both parties’ motions for attorneys’ fees, according to court records.

Barnebey, when asked how much both attorneys’ fees might be, said: “I don’t know for sure.”

At one point before trial, the plaintiffs had estimated the amount for their attorneys alone at about $1.6 million, Barnebey said.

As for the park’s attorneys’ fees, Barnebey said, “We weren’t nearly that high, but I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head. Each individual had to have his own attorney, but I don’t think it was near that amount.”

The Trailer Estates Park and Recreational District became a governmental body, subject to the state’s Sunshine and Open Records laws, when the south county park was established in 1969 as a special taxing district.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031.