BRADENTON – Former Planning and Zoning Board member and Sunshine Law lawsuit defendant John Metz has been deposed, but his computer may be subjected to a forensic examination.
Representing the city of Bradenton Beach and co-plaintiff Jack Clarke in the lawsuit filed in August 2017, attorney Robert Watrous deposed Metz under oath on Tuesday, July 2. Paralegal Michael Barfield assisted Watrous.
The lawsuit alleges Metz and former Planning and Zoning Board members Reed Mapes, Patty Shay and Bill Vincent, and former Scenic WAVES Committee members Tjet Martin and Rose Vincent violated the Florida Sunshine Law.
The allegations pertain to discussions and email exchanges the city advisory board members had while also serving as members of the Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach (CNOBB) group. Some of those discussions and email exchanges pertained to parking garages, Community Redevelopment Agency projects and other city business that had or could foreseeably come before the advisory board members in their official capacities.
Last month, Judge Edward Nicholas ruled that a parking garage would absolutely come before the Planning and Zoning Board. The one-week trial begins Monday, July 15.
Watrous produced a copy of the oath of office Metz signed in 2014 when appointed to the planning board. When signing that document, Metz swore to uphold the United States Constitution and the Florida Constitution.
Watrous also produced copies of documents Metz signed in 2014 and 2017 acknowledging his participation in mandatory Sunshine Law training and his promise to comply with city resolution 09-757.
The resolution serves as the city’s written and electronic communication policy. It references the Florida Public Records Law and states all correspondence pertaining to official city business is public record and shall be produced upon request.
Watrous referenced an email Mapes sent Metz after the lawsuit was filed. That email provided Metz with time sequences for a recording of the July 25, 2017 CNOBB discussion about a charter initiative that could have prohibited parking garages citywide.
Metz said he used the time sequences to refresh his memory of what he said that day.
“Why did you not provide that email through discovery request? We did not receive it,” Watrous said.
Metz said he didn’t remember the records request or when Mapes sent that email.
Watrous asked Metz if he attended an informal meeting shortly after the lawsuit was filed at which the defendants discussed their response strategies to case-related records requests.
“I don’t recall any discussion about withholding, destroying or not turning over any documents,” Metz said.
On Aug. 8, 2017, Martin sent an email to Metz, Mapes, Shay and Bill Vincent that included the header “Barfield.”
“I was advised not to give him anything, not a single thing,” Martin wrote.
Earlier that day, Barfield sent Martin his initial records request.
CNOBB webmaster Michael Harrington’s January deposition revealed Mapes asked Harrington to delete emails that referenced a parking garage. Harrington produced those emails, Mapes did not.
“I would request that nothing be deleted from that computer because we may seek an emergency motion to do a forensic (investigation) on that computer,” Watrous said of Metz’s computer.
On Monday, Barfield said Watrous would seek a court order to inspect Metz’s computer.
Watrous referenced a June 12, 2017 email Mapes sent to Bill Vincent about Metz joining CNOBB.
“I spoke to John. He is concerned about Sunshine issues,” Mapes wrote.
“I was pointing out that we have to be aware of the Sunshine Law; I wasn’t saying I was concerned about it,” Metz told Watrous.
Metz said he did not recall attending a CNOBB meeting that included discussion about Bill Vincent’s July 19, 2017 inquiry to the Florida Commission on Ethics regarding city advisory board members participating in CNOBB meetings.
The audio recording of the Aug. 3, 2017 CNOBB meeting confirms Metz was present when Martin read aloud the Ethics Commission response that stated it does not have jurisdiction over Sunshine Law compliance. That response recommended Vincent visit the Attorney General’s website or consult with private counsel.
Metz said he was not aware of anyone from CNOBB contacting private counsel regarding the Ethics Commission response.
In 2017, Metz’s attorney, Thomas Shults, filed an affirmative defense questioning the constitutionality of the Sunshine Law.
“Do you believe the Florida Sunshine Law is unconstitutional?” Watrous asked Metz.
“Yes,” Metz replied. “I think it’s extremely vague. I believe it chills free speech and association and the right to assemble and petition.”
Metz expressed his belief that his “direct democracy” rights regarding petition initiatives allowed him to participate in the CNOBB discussions about potential petition initiatives. Metz also expressed his belief that petition initiatives pursued according to state law do not require Planning and Zoning Board review.
Metz, a former attorney, agreed with Watrous’ statement that one’s constitutional rights can be voluntarily waived by signing a document – such as a sworn oath of office.
Watrous reviewed Metz’s past disputes with the city and its residents. These include a still-pending 2016 lawsuit Metz filed against the city challenging a permitting decision made by the building official; the unsuccessful 2015 lawsuit Metz filed against mayoral candidate Jack Clarke; Metz’s unsuccessful efforts in 2016 to prevent Commissioner Ralph Cole from operating the Coastal Watersports beach rental business he opened with city commission approval in 2001; and the successful 2018 lawsuit the Keep Our Residential Neighborhoods political action committee filed against the city regarding ballot initiatives.
Watrous asked Metz if these disputes have decreased his quality of life in Bradenton Beach.
“This litigation certainly has decreased my enjoyment – financially, reputation-wise, etc. – more than any of these other disputes,” Metz said.
Metz said he anticipates living in Bradenton Beach for the rest of his life.