Press conference sheds light on Sunshine lawsuit

Sunshine Press Conference
Paralegal Michael Barfield addresses the media, with Mayor John Chappie and City Attorney Ricinda Perry looking on. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

BRADENTON BEACH – Paralegal Michael Barfield says Sunshine Law violations that former city board members are accused of committing were not innocent mistakes made by uninformed volunteers.

He also accused the now-defunct Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach (CNOBB) group of operating as a “shadow government.”

Accompanied by Mayor John Chappie and City Attorney Ricinda Perry, Barfield held a press conference that directly preceded the City Commission’s Thursday, May 17 meeting. Barfield, a Sunshine law expert from Sarasota, is assisting attorneys Robert Watrous and Perry in the case.

“Anything less than government in the sunshine is just not acceptable and that’s why we’re here today,” Chappie said.

“We don’t view these violations as an accident or technical. They were serious, substantive violations,” Barfield said.

He later noted past Sunshine violations cost Venice taxpayers $1.6 million and recent violations cost Martin County taxpayers more than $12 million.

Enacted in 1995, the Florida Sunshine Law requires local governments and advisory boards to conduct business in properly noticed public meetings, with all related documents and correspondence made available to the public.

The lawsuit filed last August by the city and resident Jack Clarke names as defendants former Planning and Zoning Board members John Metz, Reed Mapes, Patty Shay and Bill Vincent and former Scenic WAVES Committee members Tjet Martin and Rose Vincent. The lawsuit alleges they violated the Sunshine Law by discussing past and potential board and committee business during CNOBB meetings and in private emails.

Lawsuit update

While providing an update on the lawsuit, Barfield referenced “the efforts the city has undertaken to bring transparency and sunshine to the acts of the few who have attempted to hijack city government.”

“Last year, several members of advisory boards planned the creation of a shadow form of government called CNOBB under the guise of an association. Much of the business they were doing mirrored what you would expect your local government to be doing, including discussions about parking garages and the Community Redevelopment Agency.

“The reason the Sunshine Law exists is to ensure transparency and the avoidance of backroom deals. Our goal was to find out what happened, bring awareness to the public of those violations, cure them and send a clear message that no one is above the law,” Barfield said.

“In our view, Mr. Metz is clearly the ringleader of this group. He’s a retired, wealthy attorney from California and he’s sued the city multiple times over the past few years. He is yet to prevail in any legal action against the city. The only thing Mr. Metz has done successful is deplete the treasury. By our calculations, Mr. Metz has cost the citizens of Bradenton Beach more than $150,000 through his legal actions against the city,” Barfield said.

The Sunshine suit has cost the city more than $56,000 so far. If the city prevails, the court will be asked to order the defendants to reimburse a portion of the city’s legal expenses.

Questionable intent?

“An email John Metz wrote on June 24 best summarizes the intent of these folks to operate in the shadows to change the form of government,” Barfield said. “In that email, Mr. Metz noted, ‘Changing the form of government would be better, but that will take too much time.’ Mr. Metz advocated for granting strong powers to the former mayor (Bill Shearon) and said that would ‘allow us to get rid of the lawyer (Perry) and then change the form of government.’

“There’s also an email exchange on July 21 between Reed Mapes and Tjet Martin that illustrates the intent of these individuals: ‘You are evil. It will be fun to see the panic when some begin to read what we’ve planned,’ ” Barfield said, quoting Mapes’ email to Martin.

The emails referenced CNOBB’s efforts to place three charter amendment questions on the November 2017 ballot. According to the Sunshine Law, discussing the city’s form of government is not a Sunshine violation, because that’s not something advisory boards would review. Discussions and emails about parking garages and the CRA constitute the alleged Sunshine violations.

“Other email exchanges we’ve discovered show that this is not a case where volunteer citizens stumbled upon a Sunshine violation innocently,” Barfield said.

He noted all the defendants previously received mandatory Sunshine Law training.

Sunshine Defendant Reed Mapes
Sunshine lawsuit defendant Reed Mapes listens in on Thursday’s press conference. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

Barfield referenced a June 12 email Mapes sent to Vincent regarding Metz’s concerns about Sunshine issues. He also referenced a July letter Vincent sent to the Florida Commission on Ethics asking if CNOBB was subject to Sunshine Law compliance.

“The Ethics Commission wrote back and said you need to consult with an attorney. They also called upon the Attorney General’s Office in Tallahassee and were told to check with their city attorney. Did they do that? No,” Barfield said.

“Mr. Metz seeks to have the Sunshine Law removed from the books to justify, after the fact, his conduct,” Barfield said of the motion Metz’s attorney filed challenging the state law’s constitutionality.

He also referenced the recent hearing in which Circuit Court Judge Lon Arend ruled against the defense’s requests to sequester witnesses and deposition transcripts. Defendant depositions begin May 23 and the city seeks a trial in late summer or early fall.

After the press conference, Barfield made a similar presentation to city commissioners.

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