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Judge: Leaders can't stop bikini bar

She says it is appropriate to issue an order for the Valrico establishment to open but does not make it a written command.

By KEVIN GRAHAM and JANET ZINK
Published December 17, 2005


TAMPA - Owners of a Valrico bikini bar celebrated Friday when a U.S. magistrate judge said it looks as if the county has no grounds to stop it from opening.

Jamie Rand, principal for bar owner Gemini Property Ventures, sat in court and smiled as Judge Mary Scriven gave her closing comments.

"This is just the beginning," Rand said. "Government gone wild. I'm glad that this judge was able to see through it."

Rand said he wants damages of as much as $20-million and plans to file a second suit for it.

Scriven said issuing an order for the bar, 1602 E Brandon Blvd., to open seemed appropriate. But she has not put that sentiment into a judicial order.

The opposing lawyers still have until after the new year to file written arguments in the case. If the county and Gemini don't reach a settlement before the first week of January, then Scriven will rule in the case.

Scriven also ruled that Gemini has proved it deserves First Amendment protection as a business.

Rand said that when the bar opens, it will feature women in bikinis doing private "expressive" dances.

"I think the writing is on the wall," said Luke Lirot, Gemini's attorney.

Lirot sued the county last month, claiming commissioners manipulated the county staff and code to keep the establishment shuttered and asking the court to force county officials to issue a certificate of occupancy for the bar to open.

The proposed bar has been the subject of protests from east county residents concerned about a sexually suggestive business in their community.

Rand obtained what he thought was a certificate of occupancy in September. But the county revoked it, claiming Rand's parking lot was too small.

Rand, who is renovating an old bar, argued that the parking lot meets the requirements of the 1960s era building code that governs the building because it is grandfathered in under the earlier rules.

Commissioner Ronda Storms and the county charter also came up for discussion on the second day of the court hearing. David Ford, a former top building official with the county, testified Thursday that Storms called one evening and asked him to delay issuing the certificate of occupancy for the bar.

"Was it improper for her to make the call?" Scriven asked Assistant County Attorney Louise Fields.

The county charter doesn't allow commissioners to interfere with sound government decisions. They're supposed to set broad public policy direction and leave it to the county administrator and her staff to carry it out.

Fields said there is a county provision that would allow Storms and any other commissioner to contact staff members directly to discuss issues. The county administrator must be notified of those conversations, and usually other commissioners are notified as well.

Storms declined to comment on the matter Thursday. County Attorney Rene Lee called the controversy over the phone call a misunderstanding and said she thought the commissioner was only asking for information, not telling the employee what to do.

Former County Administrator Fred Karl and a former colleague of Storms' were not so sanguine about the matter.

If the conversation took place as Ford said, it's "an evil that was condemned in the charter when it was brought into being," said Karl, a onetime state Supreme Court justice who held the county's top administrative job for four years.

But, he added, "I don't think you'll find it's a crime that's punishable in any way other than politically."

Karl said he would expect to see more control of the staff by county commissioners because in recent years, referendums have been passed that have reduced the autonomy of the county attorney, administrator and auditor.

"The commission has been drifting toward the older way of doing things," Karl said. "It's a small movement, but it sends signals to me that the commission is asserting itself and making itself stronger. The administration is supposed to be strong and run the county."

That's the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars, Karl said.

"It's hard for a staff person to work for seven people," he said, referring to the seven commissioners.

An unclear separation of powers also can lead to corruption, said Jan Platt, who was a county commissioner when the charter was crafted in the early 1980s in the wake of a bribery scandal.

That would give special interests with "the ear of a commissioner" the power to direct county government through that individual, she said.

If Storms felt comfortable calling a staff member on a matter like this, Platt said, it raises the question: In what other instances are commissioners calling staff members?

"This type of practice needs to be stopped, even if it takes a court of law to do it," she said.

Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 17, 2005, 01:00:13]


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