County attorney says leaving commissioners vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits could have "chilling effect."
| 2:40 p.m. May 19, 2021
After a bout of public records lawsuits, Manatee County commissioners voted May 11 to protect themselves against what County Attorney Bill Clague described as a “chilling effect” on their ability to perform official duties.
Before unanimously approving the county's payment of up to $60,000 worth of legal expenses accrued by Commissioners James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge in public records lawsuits, other commissioners said they were worried leaving Satcher and Van Ostenbridge to pay for the fees themselves would leave commissioners vulnerable to endless public records requests and ensuing lawsuits.
“That's not a good way of getting the best candidates to be on this board in the long run, to put a sense of fear in people, because that's what this is turning into,” Commissioner George Kruse said.
Kruse said such an individual financial burden would discourage future candidates from running for the commission.
“I'm not going to start a trend up here and start a precedent up here of having people weaponize attacking this board just to try to bleed everybody dry and bankrupt everyone up here, until we lose every credible person in Manatee County from ever wanting to serve in public office ever again,” Kruse said.
Clague agreed the county needed to protect itself against such a scenario.
“The idea is that if officials are afraid that they will be forced to pay legal expenses personally for doing their jobs, they will be afraid to do their jobs,” Clague said.
In April, Sarasota-based paralegal consultant Michael Barfield, the board president for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, agreed to voluntarily dismiss lawsuits against Commissioners James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge in exchange for settlement payments of $3,000 each. Barfield is not allowed to become a lawyer of the Florida Bar because of prior felony convictions.
Barfield had filed public records requests of Kruse, James Satcher, Kevin Van Ostenbridge and Vanessa Baugh after the four had led a move to oust Manatee County Administrator Cheri Coryea. Barfield claimed there were Sunshine Law violations and that the four had coordinated the effort outside of public scrutiny. He later sued Satcher, Van Ostenbridge and Baugh, claiming they didn't turn over all the necessary records.
Kruse said if the commissioners are left to fight frivolous lawsuits on their own, Barfield, with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, and others would continue to accuse them of unfounded accusations to place a financial burden on them.
Commissioner Reggie Bellamy agreed with Kruse and said he voted in favor of the payment because Clague said it would protect all commissioners, current and future, from politically-motivated attacks. During four months of litigation, Clague said about 20 public records requests were filed against Satcher and Van Ostenbridge, which he called “considerable.”
Baugh said the lawsuits against Satcher and Van Ostenbridge were purely political, adding that every commissioner needed to vote in favor of the payment, because it could happen to any one of them. Baugh was also sued for allegedly failing to provide all relevant public records. Her litigation is pending.
Besides the $6,000 in settlement fees paid to Barfield, Van Ostenbridge and Satcher also requested the county pay for $34,150 and $15,750, respectively, worth of attorney fees and costs. The payments could decrease, because Manatee County Clerk of Court Angel Colonneso and her staff will scrutinize the payments before authorizing them.
“If you think they're not going to look at every single hour spent by all of these attorneys and make sure that every minute that's being billed was specific to this case, and none of it was for anything else, and that it was reasonable, then you don't know Angel and her team very well,” Kruse said. “I guarantee we're not getting to $60,000. She's finding something, because she'll find out if there’s an extra olive on your salad.”
Clague said the county was authorized to cover the costs under Florida Statute 111.07, “provided that the board finds that the commissioners acted within the scope of their official duties and for a public purpose.” No violation was found in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation. Barfield has said the commissioners had not turned over all pertinent records to him, and he continued litigation after the FDLE investigation ended.
“I personally doubt that had this case for these two commissioners litigated to its conclusion, they would have been found to have violated the public records law,” Clague said.
Clague advised commissioners to approve the payment so all of them can “receive the protection they deserve in performing their duties.”