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Judge: Tax district violated sunshine law
By MELANIE AVE
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000
TAMPA PALMS -- Community activist Bob Doran has won his open meetings lawsuit against the Tampa Palms Community Development District.
A judge found the Tampa Palms resident was right when he complained that the taxing district violated the Florida Sunshine Law at least four times between 1996 and 1999.
While Doran's attorney is claiming a First Amendment victory, an attorney for the CDD said he will ask the judge Monday to reconsider his May 24 ruling.
"We want to point out some things the judge might have overlooked," Peter Winders said.
Doran's attorney, Jon Kaney, said the CDD is being "wrong and foolish" to continue fighting the suit, especially since the board will most likely have to pay Doran's escalating legal fees.
"We're having a great time proving them wrong," said Kaney. "It is a shame, though. It's very clear they are spending money on a personal animus for Bob Doran."
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. granted Doran's request for summary judgment and denied the CDD's request for the same. He will decide the issue of Doran's legal fees later. The lawsuit has already cost the board more than $30,000.
The open meetings debate began last year when Doran told prosecutors that the taxing district held four closed-door meetings without a court reporter or proper public notice.
While Assistant State Attorney Mark Lewis agreed the board violated the law, he found that it wasn't intentional and didn't warrant a criminal charge.
Winders considers the lawsuit moot since the CDD has enacted stricter closed-meeting guidelines and because every issue brought up privately has now been discussed in a public setting.
"We're now basically talking about dead issues we shouldn't be wasting any more time and money on," he said.
The board held the private meetings to discuss threatened or filed lawsuits, Winders said.
Former CDD chairman Shawn Harrison, now District 7 City Council member, chaired three of the meetings. Joseph Caetano chaired the other one.
Under new policies, the board will only meet privately to discuss filed lawsuits and when it does, a court reporter will be on hand, Winders said.
The issue of attorneys' fees could be a problem for the CDD. In April the board agreed to spend $130,000 on improved lighting for entrance signs. That would leave about $50,000 in the board's capital reserve fund, which might have to be used to pay legal fees.
Fitzpatrick voted against buying the lights because of the ongoing lawsuit saying, "It could get ugly."
-- David Pedreidra contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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