Sunshine trial gets underway

Sunshine trial gets underway
Circuit Court Judge Edward Nicholas will decide which side prevails in the Sunshine Law lawsuit. - Media Pool | Submitted

BRADENTON – The Sunshine Law lawsuit involving the city of Bradenton Beach and six former city advisory board members is underway.

The civil trial began today. The suit was filed in 2017 on behalf of the city and co-plaintiff Jack Clarke. It alleges that former Planning and Zoning Board members Reed Mapes, John Metz, Patty Shay and Bill Vincent violated the Florida Sunshine Law by discussing past, present and potential board business at Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach (CNOBB) meetings in July and August of 2017. The lawsuit alleges similar Sunshine Law violations were committed by Scenic WAVES Committee members Tjet Martin and Rose Vincent.

The trial is expected to last all week and possibly conclude on Friday.

Attorney Robert Watrous is representing the city and Clarke in this case, assisted by City Attorney Ricinda Perry and paralegal Michael Barfield. Attorney Thomas Shults is representing Metz, assisted by attorney Jodi Ruberg. The other five defendants are representing themselves.

Sunshine trial gets underway
Defendants Reed Mapes, Bill Vincent, Rose Vincent (obscured), Patty Shay, Tjet Martin, attorney Jodi Ruberg (obscured), attorney Thomas Shults and defendant John Metz sat side by side as the trial began. – Media Pool Photo | Submitted

Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Edward Nicholas is presiding over the bench trial and he alone will determine the innocence or guilt of the six defendants. The trial is taking place at the Manatee County Judicial Center in downtown Bradenton.

The trial began with Watrous and Shults seeking rulings on pretrial motions and other legal housekeeping matters.

When seeking a motion regarding the alleged spoliation of evidence, Watrous accused the defendants of intentionally withholding information during the pre-trial discovery process – included a recording of the July 14 CNOBB meeting that Shults did not provide Watrous until the day after Metz’s July 2 deposition. During that CNOBB meeting, Mapes initiated discussion on a quasi-judicial land use issue that was currently before the Planning and Zoning Board regarding the Bridge Tender Inn’s Dockside Bar seating capacity.

Nicholas denied the preliminary motions and said he would take them under advisement individually as the trial moves along.

Opening statements

During his opening statements, Watrous said the city’s legal team has compiled a large amount of information that he believes supports the allegations. The evidence includes email exchanges, audio recordings of CNOBB meetings, city meeting minutes, newspaper articles and more.

Sunshine trial gets underway
City resident Jack Clarke, Mayor John Chappie, City 0Attorney Ricinda Perry, paralegal Michael Barfield and Attorney Robert Watrous sat together at the plaintiffs’ table. – Media Pool Photo | Submitted

Watrous said the evidence would show that CNOBB consisted of extremely zealous individuals that formed their own shadow government because they did not feel their voices were being heard by the city commission.

Watrous said the defendants have claimed they are the victims in this case, portraying themselves as innocent retirees who volunteered their time to serve on city advisory boards.

Watrous said that all six defendants received Sunshine Law training while serving as city advisory board members but chose to “turn a blind eye” when moving forward with their CNOBB activities.

He also noted the defendants never sought the advice of the Manatee County attorney’s office or outside counsel regarding whether their participation in CNOBB meeting discussions were Sunshine Law-compliant.

“This an intentional act on their parts. I’m not saying they’re bad people, but they exercised bad judgment,” Watrous said.

During his opening statements, Shults said this case is really the story of six citizens who volunteered to serve on city boards without compensation. He also said this is the story of six citizens and their constitutional rights to petition their city government for changes to the city charter.

Shults said the defendants should be commended for their service to the city and halting their July 25, 2017 discussion about prohibiting parking garages after only six minutes of discussion.

Shults said no Sunshine Law violations occurred, but if they had they would have been cured by the resignations of all six defendants before or after the lawsuit was filed in August 2017.

“That should have been the end of this matter,” Shults said. “They should have been saluted instead of being sued. Here we are two years later.”

After the lunch break, Watrous and Barfield read aloud excerpts from the printed transcript of Bill Vincent’s December 2018 deposition. Barfield read Vincent’s responses to questions Watrous posed late last year about his city-mandated Sunshine Law training, the April 2017 Planning and Zoning Board discussions he participated in regarding parking garages and his role in creating and chairing CNOBB.