It almost doesn’t even qualify as news; it was so expected.
That is, the Sarasota City Commission — with its newly appointed Susan Chapman allies, Stan Zimmerman and Eileen Normile — voted Monday to have taxpayers cover Chapman’s legal bills in her fight against Citizens for Sunshine.
This is the 15-month-old lawsuit alleging that Chapman violated the state’s Sunshine Law when she attended a closed-door meeting with downtown business people, city staffers and Commissioner Suzanne Atwell.
Chapman and Atwell, who was also sued but settled for about $8,500, maintain they did not violate any laws because they didn’t participate in any discussions at the meeting. They only attended and listened.
For Citizens for Sunshine, aka the infamous Andrea Mogensen and her paralegal, Michael Barfield, that meeting was like raw meat to a lion. They wanted blood, well, more like money and to continue to send a message to city officials that they’re watching commissioners’ every move.
Atwell, to her credit, decided to put the matter behind her and paid the ransom. She settled, maintaining she did not violate the law, nor having to admit any wrongdoing. She spared taxpayers the cost and took one for the team, in spite of knowingly doing nothing wrong.
Chapman, however, has and continues to fight the suit, apparently as a matter of principle. She wants adjudication and justice.
But at what price? And for whom?
So far, Chapman’s legal bills have cost taxpayers $84,836 to date for her portion of the dispute.
Altogether, according to the city attorney’s office, the lawsuit has reached about $125,000 in fees, including $17,679 to Mogensen and $14,376 to cover the city attorney’s costs. In March, the City Commission declined to continue paying Chapman’s fees.
But Chapman being Chapman, she wasn’t about to give up the fight — against Citizens for Sunshine or for seeking taxpayer funds to defend her.
Commissioner Zimmerman justified his support for continuing to pay Chapman’s legal bills, noting that if the city did not, no one would be willing to serve on the City Commission or any city board, knowing he or she had personal legal exposure.
As it turns out, no one would or does — except in cases of intentionally breaking the law.
Here’s a surprise: Up until recently, after all of the Citizens for Sunshine challenges began, the city of Sarasota did not carry what’s known as errors-and-omissions insurance, or directors-and-officers insurance, that covered such things as public records or Sunshine Law violations. The city had such D&O insurance, but it only would cover commissioners and others in instances when the city was sued for monetary damages.
Why the city didn’t carry that type of insurance is puzzling to begin with. It’s a matter of routine course in business that boards of directors protect themselves against any liability with comprehensive D&O insurance.
Now, however — and unfortunately after the fact — City Attorney Fournier says the city has such insurance, negating Zimmerman’s concerns and, you can say, one of his justifications for continuing to pay Chapman’s costs. Commissioners and city advisory board members now have insurance.
So the question before commissioners Monday night was really this: Should taxpayers fund Commissioner Chapman’s fight for principle?
Observing this from the outside, it appears Commissioner Chapman is taking the following position: I did nothing wrong. I refuse to settle and give in to Barfield and Mogensen and pay them to go away. That’s not right. They should not walk away with a dime. I want to win in a court of law. I want my name to be cleared. And, if justice is served, a judge will insist that Barfield and Mogensen reimburse the city for the legal fees.
But here’s a question Chapman should be asking herself: As a commissioner representing the citizens and taxpayers of the city of Sarasota, what is best for them? Is it right to subject taxpayers to the costs of this legal battle for her personal principles? Or is it better to take a settlement offer and move on?
The citizens of Sarasota know Atwell and Chapman did not intentionally disregard or violate the Sunshine Law, nor did they do anything in that meeting to violate the public trust. And while it’s tempting to want to seek vindication — and perhaps revenge — against Citizens for Sunshine, as most business people who have experienced these nuisance suits know, it’s typically best to put them to rest and move on.
Better yet, if Mogensen and Barfield, the drivers of Citizens for Sunshine, were serving the best interests of the citizens of Sarasota, whom they claim to stand up for, they would step forward with Chapman at their side and announce they are dropping the suit against her, satisfied that everyone has learned a few valuable lessons. That would be a noble, albeit unlikely, act.
+ Young talent wants urban core
“Young Drive an Urban Rebound.”
That was the headline last weekend over a Wall Street Journal article. It reported that America’s cities — from small to midsize to the biggest — are seeing a resurgence in urban office demand because that’s where workers want to be and can be found.
“Companies seeking to lure the best young college graduates say the right location gives them an advantage over other employers,” said the article. “(Employers) are going where the talent is, and the talent is in the urban core,” Jason Hickey, chief executive of Hickey & Associates, an office-space advisory firm, told the Journal.
Sarasota take note. Indeed, look no further than downtown St. Petersburg, which amplifies this trend. That is Florida’s most vibrant urban core, teeming with young professionals who have found affordable living in high-density apartments and condominiums.
Sarasota business and civic leaders constantly talk about wanting to keep the talent that comes out of Ringling College of Art and Design, USF and New College. But they won’t stay in the urban core until city commissioners wake up to allow increased densities and heights to accommodate more affordable housing.
MAN ON A MISSION — THE SAME ONE … JOBS
Stirring the masses with moving speeches is not Gov. Rick Scott’s forte. Staying focused on a goal and achieving it are. Here are some of our favorite excerpts from his inauguration speech Tuesday:
• “If I can make Florida the worldwide location where families who have struggled to make ends meet can get a job, then I have fulfilled my goal as governor, because a job is the No. 1 way to change a life. A job helps families put food on the table, pay the rent and buy a car. A job gives families hope for the future …”
• “In the next four years, we will build on our legacy of cutting taxes more than 40 times. We will cut another $1 billion in taxes in the next two years and continue to roll back the business tax while permanently eliminating the tax on manufacturing equipment.”
• “I have a message today to the people of New York, Illinois, California, Pennsylvania and others: Move to Florida! We want you to keep more of the money you make because we understand it’s your money. We want your businesses to grow and succeed. We want to compete globally and win. Over the next four years, I will be traveling to your states personally to recruit you here. In Florida, we are in the business of growing opportunity for families, not growing government.”
• “Today, Texas is our No. 1 competitor for jobs — but we will unseat Texas within the next four years for this top spot, and we will compete globally for business investment.”
• “In closing, I will admit to you that our new goal of unseating Texas and becoming the global leader in job creation is equally ambitious.
“But, if we accomplish our priorities — invest in education, cut taxes, lower the cost of higher education and improve workforce development — we will continue to be the No. 1 destination for people looking to escape big government all across the country … and the world.”