City of St. Pete Beach gets law schooled! Lawsuits against city multiply and intensify, signs of expensive Yogi-esque “déjà vu all over again”

“The City Commission failed to afford procedural due process, departed from the essential requirements of law, and failed to support its decision with competent substantial evidence,” an important legal filing in one of many lawsuits against the City of St. Pete Beach alleges. The filing came on April 3rd in the form of a so-called petition for a writ of certiorari by the Seamark Condo Association, Protect St. Pete Beach (PSPB) and Ken Barnes, owner of a unit in Seamark. The petition for a “cert” (as it is often called) pertains to the Sirata Permit CUP (Conditional Use Permit) that was approved by unelected city commissioners on February 27th. Seamark is located directly next door to the Sirata.

We cover the ongoing battles in St. Pete Beach because events there may provide a template for how developers seek approval for densification for transient lodging (mainly hotels) on the beach in the face of intense local opposition. Such battles are currently taking place all over Florida.

From a movie poster for Bruce Lee’s 1973 cult classic “Enter the Dragon”

“We have received 5 lawsuits this year,” Assistant City Attorney Matthew McConnell told the city commission on April 9th. “We have 17 total [lawsuits] that the city is currently a party to.”

McConnell laid his hand noisily on the dais after he mentioned the total number of lawsuits. He laid his other hand noisily on the dais after mentioning the aforementioned petition for a writ of certiorari, as if a hopelessly mighty dragon just entered into the city’s affairs.

McConnell also sighed several times during the 6 minutes that he spent briefing the city commission on the various lawsuits, which included a brief mention of our public records and Florida Sunshine Law lawsuit. More on our lawsuit later.

The Seamark was built in 1974 and will be directly and permanently affected by the massive expansion of Sirata, as alleged in Seamark’s filing.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Ken Barnes, has owned a condo in Seamark since 2017. Barnes owns a law practice in Kansas City, MO and is a litigator with a seemingly impressive litigation record.

The defendants in Seamark’s lawsuit seem to want to get the new lawsuit resolved quickly. They joined the plaintiffs in asking the judge to issue this “Order to show cause” which will move the lawsuit along. Judge Thomas Ramsberger issued the order the next morning, and the defendants (the city and Sirata) have until May 20th to respond.

The petition for a writ of certiorari seems to lay out a strong case for why the Sirata CUP approval should be thrown out, but predicting the outcome of litigation is unwise. In 2019, we reported on what was a win for a Clearwater Beach resident after a court considered convincing evidence — then an appeals court unusually reversed the lower court ruling, saying that the evidence should not have been considered by the lower court to begin with.

Therefore, those wanting to place bets on the outcome of any of the 17 lawsuits the City of St. Pete Beach is defending should contact their local bookie to see if they are even willing to give odds.

Even if Judge Ramsberger decides this particular case quickly, that isn’t likely to be the end of the matter. Appeals could follow, especially if Sirata loses.

If the ultimate outcome is that the Sirata CUP approval is thrown out, it will call in to question the city’s actions and Sirata’s strategy, especially in light of former St. Pete Beach City Attorney Tim Driscoll’s statement at a recent city commission hearing that he didn’t  “want to have any approval [for his current client] that could be jeopardized by the make-up of the commission, quite frankly.”

Poster for “Kung Pow – Enter the Fist,” a humorous yet adoring satire of Bruce Lee’s cult classic “Enter the Dragon”

Driscoll was referring to the challenge to the lawfulness of the seating of the four unelected commissioners (Marriott, Filtz, Rzewnicki and Lorenzen) that a separate lawsuit brought by PSPB has challenged.

During the hearing leading up to the city commission approving the Sirata CUP, Barnes pointed out in great detail (video) how the proposed Sirata redevelopment violated the city’s own comprehensive plan.

In contrast to Barnes’s litigation record, the city’s litigation record so far this century is unimpressive. In 2016, the city even sued the law firm Bryant, Miller Olive for malpractice to recover some of the $2 million it incurred in fighting and losing two separate cases brought by St. Pete Beach residents Chet Chmielewski (court’s decision) and James Anderson (court’s decision). The city even had to pay the legal fees of those two plaintiffs while fighting these losing legal battles.

And now it seems like it’s déjà vu all over again (as Yogi Berra once said), with us quoting those very decisions in alleging violations of the Florida Sunshine Law. The city attorney, Andrew Dickman, is the same city attorney as back then, and he was briefed in a city commission meeting in 2015 (video) on the lessons learned from those two cases.

It would be inappropriate to comment in any detail on our lawsuit alleging violations of the Florida public records law and the so-called Florida Sunshine Law (open meetings law). However, we encourage interested parties to review our amended complaint, the city’s response in the form of their motion to dismiss (MTD), and our response to it because conclusions can be drawn from these three court filings.

Under the rules of the 6th Florida circuit court that will decide our case, the MTD will likely be considered on written submissions. This is an outcome the city did not desire. They will likely not get the hearing to hear oral arguments on their MTD they desired.

We encourage citizen scrutiny of all legal filings, including ours, and all city actions, and not only because taxpayers in St. Pete Beach ultimately pay for the work that is done by the city in their names. We also do so because citizen involvement is vital to the public policy process.

Are these 17 lawsuits effectively a full employment act for the Dickman Law Firm? Is there any likelihood that the Unelected Four would vote to fire the city attorney when he is the one who created the scheme by which they ended up on the dais?

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