Should Kyle Battie face litigation in the wake of his racially charged Jan. 16 presentation to fellow city commissioners regarding a local civic activist, the city will cover his legal expenses, but only to a point.
On Monday, the City Commission voted 4-0 to cap Battie’s legal costs at $15,000 should Kelly Franklin, a frequent critic of city policies who is well-known to City Hall, decide to bring a defamation suit against Battie. Commissioners approved Erik Arroyo’s motion to cover the legal fees not to exceed $15,000 without commission approval, requiring an update on progress within six months.
During the Jan. 16 meeting, Battie displayed a crumpled printout of an alleged social media post made by Franklin that featured a photo of Battie at a ribbon cutting for Corona Cigar Co. along with half Black co-owner Tanya Borysiewicz, accompanied by a caption that read, “Gorillas in the midst of being gorillas are on my mind.”
Franklin immediately denied making such a post, and a brief search of her Facebook page revealed that caption was included with a photo gallery of gorillas from her 2022 African photo safari.
Battie also displayed a list of names of members of city government advocacy group CityPAC, of which Franklin is a member, asking aloud if she represented the racial attitude of that group.
On Monday, commissioners characterized all parties involved as victims of a hoax with pleas that they convene, settle the matter and move on for the benefit of the city.
“We know Commissioner Battie has been maligned,” said Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. “We know Kelly Franklin has been maligned. We know Miss Tanya from the cigar bar has been maligned, and also CityPAC has been maligned. It would be my hope that all four could get together and use their resources to find out who did this.”
The Facebook post printout, Borysiewicz told commissioners on Jan. 16, was delivered to her office at the cigar bar’s Sarasota location, viewed by her assistant, then crumpled and placed in a trash can, later retrieved, and shown to her. She said she then provided it to Battie, setting in motion the events of Jan. 16.
Franklin’s attorney Richard Harrison, though, alleges that via text messages between Borysiewicz and Battie, obtained via FOIA requests, that they knew the post was a hoax in mid-December, and that the Jan. 16 presentation was orchestrated.
Speaking at Monday’s meeting, Harrison said, “This was not an unfortunate accident. It was a rogue commissioner who frankly duped all of you, embarrassed the entire city, kept this information from you the whole time, gave you no backup and sucked all of you into this mess intentionally. And now has the audacity to ask you to pay his fees.”
Rob Grant, an Arlington Park resident and advocate who frequently appears before the City Commission, said commissioners “failed” in their duties on Jan. 16 by not stopping Battie’s presentation once they realized the subject matter.
“At any moment, any one of you could have called point of order and invoked your power and responsibility,” Grant said. “Somebody should have made a motion to table that discussion, pending an immediate investigation, independent or by the city auditor and clerk who has the broad investigative powers. The perception was that some of you had an axe to grind and you wielded your power as a city official. You have put at risk the credibility of the Sarasota City Commission and possibly created liability for taxpayers.”
Before the vote, Arroyo said the commission would do the “righteous thing” to cover Battie’s expenses. Speaker David Morris called it “the collegial thing to do,” but said the public needs something in return — an investigation into the origin of the alleged fake post.
“You'll find out the full truth soon enough, who knew what and when they knew it,” Morris said. “And when you do, I hope you act in the best interest of the city free from any other motive.”
Although recused from the vote, Battie took the opportunity to respond to his critics, holding to the position he took on Jan. 16 that if the post can be proven a hoax, he will publicly apologize.
“I've been assaulted, attacked, maligned, called dumb, called a clown,” he said. I think that (the post) was true and I still think that is true until proven that it's not. I did my due diligence in trying vet it, and it’s something to sit here and have people lob stones at you right to your face. Everyone is quick to protect the virtues of a certain individual and malign an African American man here today, forgetting the fact that someone put this out into our public atmosphere.
"It wasn't just an assault on me. It was an assault on everyone in this community who looks like me.”