Recusal smear effort against beach mayor in $500 million beach project goes down in flames when Sirata serves up a big Nothingburger

“Are you familiar with” St. Pete Beach Mayor asked Attorney George Vinci, Jr. at the Sirata Conditional Use Permit (CUP) hearing (video of the exchange) last Wednesday evening. Vinci represents the company that owns the Sirata Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach. Sirata is seeking a CUP from the city to redevelop the site to the tune of $500 million.

“I’m sorry?” Vinci responded to Petrila’s question. Petrila repeated his question: are you familiar with

“…” Vinci responded hesitantly. “No, I am not sir.”

And with that, Sirata’s bizarre and inexplicable effort to smear Mayor Petrila with a claim of “pervasive bias” fizzled in a blaze of inglorious embarrassment. We will get to why we call it “bizarre and inexplicable” later in this article.

Attorney George Vinci, Jr.

Vinci, who is an attorney admitted to practice law in the state of Florida, had on the preceding Friday sent this letter to City Attorney Andrew Dickman. In it, Vinci asked that Petrila recuse himself from the CUP vote due to alleged “pervasive bias” against the Sirata.

Sunbiz.Org is the website where anyone can look up who the officers of profit and non-profit corporations are. The 86-page attachment that Vinci included with his letter did not contain any material from Sunbiz.Org.

Vinci’s argument hinged largely on the claim stated in his letter that “Mayor Petrila is the founder of Protect St. Pete Beach” (PSPB), an organization which is opposed to the Sirata CUP and recently filed a lawsuit against the city.

However, Petrila is not the founder of Protect St. Pete Beach Advocacy Group, the Florida non-profit corporation that has sued the city. Since Vinci’s argument hinged on that being true, his further arguments became a bit unhinged in the five minute exchange that followed (video of the exchange).

The back and forth ended with City Attorney Dickman stepping in to end it by having Petrila state that he can be “impartial and unbiased,” and then told Vinci that his arguments “are in the record.” The meeting then moved on to other topics.

That fact that Vinci in his letter didn’t write “Incorporated,” “LLC,” “Political Committee” or any other organizational descriptor immediately after writing “Protect St. Pete Beach” was the first sign that his claims might be on thin ice. What sent Vinci through the ice into freezing water was his admission that he didn’t know how to find the names of corporate officers for Florida corporations, including for non-profit corporations like PSPB.

Vinci had copied Petrila on his letter to City Attorney Dickman, but also copied the four appointed and thus unelected commissioners, as well as Elise Batsel, an attorney serving as Sirata’s lead person on the CUP. Whether one of these people or Vinci himself leaked his letter to the Tampa Bay Times is not known, but the Times published this article just hours before the CUP hearing.

In that article, Times reporter Jack Evans laid out the facts that Vinci had failed to find:

“Petrila was the founder and chairperson of Protect St. Pete Beach, a political action committee that existed alongside his mayoral candidacy….and resigned as the PAC’s chairperson in April. The similarly named Protect St. Pete Beach Advocacy Group registered with Florida’s Division of Corporations as a nonprofit in October. The nonprofit maintained the PAC’s website, and its president, JoLynn Lawson, was Petrila’s successor as chairperson. Petrila has not held a position with the nonprofit, according to state records.

Mayor Adrian Petrila

Before Vinci came to the podium, the commission had just returned from a recess two hours into the meeting. After Petrila asked that “the applicant please come forward and begin their presentation,” Sirata’s lead person on the CUP Elise Batsel stepped to the podium and said “excuse me, Mayor Petrilo [sic], we just have a housekeeping item that we want to address. The other counsel, George Vinci, will come up and address this item.”

Precisely because Batsel said that it was a “housekeeping” item, as opposed to “I have no idea what he will talk about” or just not characterizing what Vinci was about to cover, and because she had been copied on his letter, it seems clear that Batsel knew what Mr. Vinci was going to cover. After all, it is she who decides who comes to the podium to speak for her client.

Emailed questions about this incident to Batsel and her assistant, as well as a request for any comment, had not been responded to by the time of publication.

“Respectfully, I don’t comment on ongoing business before the city, especially not CUP applications,” Petrila told the Guardian in response to our questions about the interaction with Vinci.

The William Yung family owns the Columbia Sussex hotel company, which through a subsidiary company owns the Sirata. It’s hard to believe that Batsel decided that Vinci was needed, which raises many questions:

1/ Why did the Yungs decide to have Vinci to fling low quality dung that failed to stick? As the client, the Yungs must have greenlighted this effort.
2/ How did the Yungs think this incompetently executed smear effort would help their CUP application?
3/ Why even try to get Petrila to recuse himself when they probably have “yes” votes on their CUP from the four appointed commissioners?
4/ Or is the failed recusal effort an indication of wavering support from the appointed commissioners who are feeling the ire of their constituents?

As always….the Guardian reports and the readers decide. Please like our Facebook page to find out when we publish new stories.

Below: the Recusalburg disaster. Oh, the humanity!