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Bradenton Beach officials, residents reject dueling offers to settle Sunshine Law lawsuit

Breaking the tie in Bradenton Beach mayoral race

Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Michael Bennett shuffles cards before letting Jack Clarke and William Shearon take turns drawing cards Wednesday afternoon. The moment broke the tie between the mayoral
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Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Michael Bennett shuffles cards before letting Jack Clarke and William Shearon take turns drawing cards Wednesday afternoon. The moment broke the tie between the mayoral

Bradenton Beach officials and some residents have been fighting an internal war since 2017 and it doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon.

That summer, Jack Clarke, who briefly served as mayor of Bradenton Beach in 2015, and the city government sued four members of its own planning and zoning board, as well as two members of its Scenic Waves Partnership Committee for Sunshine Law violations. The members of the two boards are appointed by the city.

Depending on whom ask, the roots of the case probably lie in the political and personal rivalries that can dominate politics on Anna Maria Island. An attempt to reach an amicable solution was rejected earlier this week.

To end the longstanding feud, the city this month offered to settle the lawsuit if each defendant paid the city $500, for a total of $3,000, and acknowledged their mistakes.

In an unusual move, the defendants made a counter-offer to pay more: $10,000 for an island charity or nonprofit of the city’s choice.

The counter-offer was rejected and the legal fees for city taxpayers — already totaling $170,000 — will continue to rise.

Elected officials supporting the lawsuit against appointed officials say Sunshine violations are not to be tolerated and said they won’t accept anything less than an admission of guilt.

Proposed parking garage sparks suit

In the spring of 2017, the city was considering a new parking garage and the proposal went through the planning and zoning board to see if it was consistent with the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency plan.

After a couple of lengthy meetings in April 2017, the P&Z board determined the proposed garage was consistent with the CRA requirements.

However, four of the P&Z board members — John Metz, Patricia Shay, Reed Mapes and William Vincent — that summer helped form a group called Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach. At one of their first board meetings, the four, who are no longer on the P&Z board, discussed and took votes opposing the parking garage, according to court documents.

The Sunshine Law is clear: Any gathering of two or more city officials, elected or appointed alike, where they are involved in discussion about city business must be publicly noticed. There was no public notice given for the meeting, but the defendants claim no substantive discussions about the garage took place.

Also named in the suit were Rose Vincent, William’s wife, and Tjet Martin, members of the Scenic Waves committee. Martin and Rose Vincent are said to have talked at another meeting regarding a subject matter that often comes up before their committee: the use of ropes and bollards for parking.

Martin said there was no conversation and that someone had asked her while attending a CRA meeting if the subject was going to be discussed and she answered she believed it was.

“That was the extent of it,” Martin said. “And Rose wasn’t even in the building.”

Clarke later admitted in his deposition that he may have confused Vincent with someone else, but they remain listed as co-defendants.

Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach has a primary board, as well as subcommittees. Their bylaws indicate their purpose is for education, citizen initiatives and referendums, positive reconciliation of concerns and growth and development of the organization.

City board members involved with or who engage with such an organization that focuses on city issues would likely get into city business at some point with one another. It is not only a bad idea, but it creates the potential for illegal actions and the diminishing of public trust, according to a Florida Attorney General’s opinion on such gatherings.

The city’s suit argues that line was crossed.

The rejection

The city made the $3,000 settlement offer on March 1.

“This is a strikingly reasonable offer on behalf of the city of Bradenton Beach and would allow all parties to resolve this matter in an amicable and financial manner.,” the city’s attorney, Robert Watrous, wrote in a letter to the defendants.

The settlement offer was approved by the city commission on Feb. 28. The resolution admonishes anyone trying to evade the Sunshine Law and demands those named in the lawsuit take personal responsibility for the “errors that were made.”

Thomas Schults, an attorney representing Metz, proposed the counter-offer on behalf of all of the defendants. In a letter back to the city, Schults said all involved seem to agree on the importance of putting the dispute behind them, noting it was time to heal.

However, Schults proposed a one-word change in the resolution where it says the defendants “shall” acknowledge that they had concerns about Sunshine violations to “may” acknowledge.

Shults also noted if the case goes any further with litigation, it would cost “huge sums” of money to take it to trial and through any possible appeals..

Schults concludes with, “It is time to make peace.”

To date, the city has already spent close to $170,000 but appears ready to spend more. Martin said about $100,000 has been spent defending the case and estimates the word “may” will end up costing all involved, including the taxpayers, close to $500,000 before all is said and done.

“The only ones winning are the lawyers,” Martin said. “But we aren’t going to admit to something we didn’t do and that’s what they want. They are out for scalps.

The city rejected the offer.

Politics or personal?

Martin, Metz and William Vincent all ran for city commission in 2018. They all lost, but Martin doesn’t believe that political backlash is driving the city to publicly humiliate the defeated candidates.

“It’s personal,” she said.

Martin is the life partner of former Mayor Bill Shearon. She said she believes a feud between Shearon and Clarke is what sparked the suit to begin with. Clarke was a city commissioner who led a successful effort to recall Shearon from office in the spring of 2015. Clarke took over as mayor but lost to Shearon that November after they drew cards to break a tie vote.

Shearon did not run for re-election in 2016 when former Manatee County Commissioner John Chappie beat William Vincent.

With the city rejecting the counter offer for $10,000 and changing “shall” to “may”, Martin said the defendants will no longer accept the city’s offer, either.

What’s next?

City attorney Ricinda Perry outlined why the city rejected the defendants’ offer on March 10. Perry, at first, pointed out that a special meeting could not be called in time for the counter offer’s March 15 deadline to be discussed without proper public notice. But she also said the city was in no mood to negotiate further.

“In sum, the commission asked me to convey to you that the settlement offer generously made by the city on March 1 stands, and that this is the best offer that will be given to the defendants,” Perry wrote in her response.

The city is giving the defendants until midnight of March 18 to accept the, “generous terms extended in the hopes of bringing closure and healing to the city. Just so that I am abundantly clear on the temperature of my client, they are completely unwilling to negotiate further.”

Neither are the defendants so Martin said the March 18 deadline is irrelevant. Perry has now been called for deposition by the opposing attorneys, which is scheduled for March 20.

Perry polled the election officials to offer their input into her response.

Mayor Chappie “emphasized that they are elected to assure the community that their government is operating in the open and Sunshine, otherwise, you get back room stuff going on and that cannot be tolerated,” Perry said of Chappie’s comments.

Chappie did not immediately return a call for comment on Thursday.

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