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Lawsuit could pose post-election puzzle

If either of two candidates wins, it could create a conflicting situation.

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published February 18, 2007


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ST. PETE BEACH - Pending litigation might make it difficult for two candidates for City Commission to make certain decisions while in office, if they are elected, legal experts said.

For weeks there have been rumors that candidates Linda Chaney and Harry Metz, both members of Citizens for Responsible Growth, a resident group that has sued the city over development issues, could not be sworn in because lawsuits filed by the group or against the group are still pending.

But city officials said Metz and Chaney might only be asked not to vote on issues that could affect the outcome of the case.

Their conflict of interest would be similar to that of Commissioner Deborah Nicklaus, a co-owner of the Sirata Beach Resort Hotel, who has had to recuse herself from voting during the past year on various development issues that could affect her property.

Metz and Chaney sent a letter to City Attorney Timothy Driscoll last week asking that their names be removed from a lawsuit filed by the city. As officers and founders of the group, they were named as defendants in a pending case over whether citizens could repeal a development plan after the City Commission had already approved it. But in recent months Chaney and Metz have stepped down as officers of the group.

City Manager Michael Bonfield, who was on vacation for part of the week, said he had not heard of the letter and was checking to see if it would be feasible to remove their names from the lawsuit.

If Chaney and Metz's names are not removed and they are elected, Driscoll would advise them on whether they should vote on development issues on a case by case basis, Bonfield said.

Complications could arise if the city were to hold a private meeting on the lawsuit, which Sunshine Laws permit them to do so legal strategies are not revealed to opponents. If elected, Metz and Chaney would technically be both plaintiffs and defendants, and they would have to decide if it would be a conflict of interest to attend such meetings, said Chip Morrison, general counsel for the Florida League of Cities.

"I don't know if it would be that difficult for them to do their job," he said. "Obviously it would be less difficult if they didn't have the litigation."

Candidates who have an interest in an agenda item or resolution can give their opinions, but should not vote if they stand to personally gain something as a result of the outcome of the vote, Morrison said.

Metz, who is running for the District 4 seat, said the lawsuits do not represent a conflict of interest.

"I own no property that I can make a profit from or anything like Nicklaus did," he said.

Melinda Pletcher, Metz's opponent, said concern over Metz's and Chaney's involvement in the pending lawsuit has been brought up by voters when she goes door to door.

"People are thinking how can they possibly serve and be privy to the information you would be privy to," she said. "I don't want to pooh-pooh Linda and I don't want to pooh-pooh Harry, but it is a matter of fact."

Chaney, who is running for the District 2 seat that Nicklaus is vacating, echoed Metz.

"The only thing we would not be able to vote on is whether or not the lawsuit should be continued against the citizens, period, all other city business is not a conflict of interest," she said.

Roger Adams, Chaney's opponent, declined to comment.

Nicklaus said it was frustrating for her when she had to recuse herself from voting.

"Obviously it hurts when you can't vote, there is no doubt about that," she said. "I mean that is what you are there to do."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 17, 2007, 19:26:16]


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