MADEIRA BEACH – Just days before elections in which the mayor and two city commissioners face challenges for re-election, one Madeira Beach commission member is being ousted.
A county circuit court judge has ruled that the method the commission used to appoint Commissioner Housh Ghovaee to his District 4 commission seat was a violation of the Florida Sunshine Law.
A copy of an order issued for Sixth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Jack Day on March 6, obtained by the Beach Beacon, states in part that “the process used to fill the vacancy in office violated the Sunshine Law. Furthermore the appointment of Housh Ghovaee as District 4 commissioner is void ab initio (from the beginning).”
Ghovaee’s absence from the commission could be short, depending on voters’ intentions in the March 14 election. He is a candidate for re-election and will miss only one commission meeting if the voters choose to return him to office.
Day’s ruling lists the city of Madeira Beach, Mayor Travis Palladeno, Commissioners Terry Lister and Nancy Hodges as defendants. All violated the Sunshine Law, the Judge concluded. Residents William Gay and Cathy Moore filed the civil action.
In his three-page ruling, Day says that following the resignation of Commissioner Pat Shontz, Palladeno, Lister and Hodges “participated in a process to fill the vacancy in office in which applications were solicited from the public and then ranked by the mayor and commissioners outside of a public meeting.”
Day described the process, which included a tabulation form to rank the applicants, and said, “according to Lister, the city has followed this procedure to make public appointments in the past.”
The judge went on to describe the process used to notify Ghovaee and the other candidates of the commission’s decision to select Ghovaee and of public notices of meetings held relating to “the selection of a candidate for District 4 vacancy.”
Day said “Notably, the City Attorney Tom Trask attempted to ‘cure’ any potential Sunshine Law violations at the regular meeting by asking each of the Commissioners to affirm that the tabulation form previously completed by them was their tabulation form, prior to voting to appoint Mr. Ghovaee. The rankings made by each of the Commissioners were not announced publicly at the meeting. Moreover, there was no discussion of any other candidate or the relative merits of the three candidates. Only Mr. Ghovaee’s merits were discussed and then only in a congratulatory fashion.”
The judge’s ruling concludes, “Based on the undisputed facts before the court, the court concludes that the City, Palladeno, Lister, and Hodges violated the Sunshine Law in selecting Mr. Ghovaee to fill the vacancy in the District 4 Commissioner seat. Furthermore, the court concludes that the invalid appointment of Mr. Ghovaee was not ‘cured’ at the regular meeting held on July 12, 2016.”
Finally, “the process used by Defendants to fill the vacancy in office violated the Sunshine Law. Furthermore, the appointment of Housh Ghovaee as District 4 Commissioner is void ab initio (from the beginning).”
What this action will mean for the City Commission is unclear at this point. Ghovaee is running for re-election along with Palladeno. Both have opponents.
Commissioner Ingrid Ferro-Spilde, who was not on the commission when Ghovaee was selected, also has opposition in her race.
The biggest, and most divisive, issue in the election has been two major developments proposed for the city’s eastern gateway along 150th Avenue and Madeira Way. Both Ghovaee and Palladeno support the developments, which have been downsized due to resident pressure.
Madeira Beach City Manager Shane Crawford released this statement:
“Judge Day denied the city’s motion for partial summary judgement and granted the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment. The Judge opined that the ballot form which was completed outside a public meeting resulting in the Board of Commissioners taking formal action was not in the Sunshine. The judge found that the language which was put on the form by the former city clerk that said “the highest ranked applicant will be selected for appointment to the Board of Commissioners” to be a selection outside a public meeting. While the commissioners were found in violation, they do not have to pay any penalty.
“The court did state that there was no intent by the commission to violate the Sunshine Law. However, the process which the City utilized in the past to not embarrass candidates that were not appointed did not meet the court’s interpretation of the requirements under the Sunshine Law. All the commissioners participated in this vote including former Commissioner Elaine Poe.
“The city has 30 days to appeal the order, which has not been signed yet.
“The net effect is that since there is a new election in a week, nothing changes unless there were any votes that Housh Ghovaee was involved in that was a split vote of 3-2. Since Mr. Ghovaee’s appointment, there were no 3-2 votes.
“The City is liable for attorney’s fees which along with delaying the recent developments from proceeding is the underlying motivation for these lawsuits and is a wasteful way to utilize the taxpayer’s money.
“The new Board of Commissioners will have to determine if they want to appeal this ruling and that can be done in a shade (non-public) meeting.”