BELLEAIR BLUFFS – The City Commission has taken action to establish a policy which allows public officials to seek reimbursement for the cost of defending themselves against civil actions brought by citizens.
A resolution on the subject was unanimously passed by the Belleair Bluffs Commission at its June 21 regular meeting.
The issue apparently came up as a result of former Commissioner David Shimkus’ filing of ethics charges against Mayor Chris Arbutine last year. Arbutine was later cleared of all charges. A request by Arbutine to be reimbursed $3,600 in legal fees incurred in that case was included later on the agenda.
Arbutine said he brought the subject before the commission so that future commissioners would be protected from the costs of legal challenges.
“This resolution does not apply to me, it protects anyone on the commission,” he said.
Commissioner Taylour Shimkus questioned why a policy of reimbursement is needed at all.
“I have talked to representatives from five cities, and no one has a charter that addresses this type of fee,” she said. Shimkus also said she had spoken with two people who had been accused of ethics violations, and neither were seeking reimbursement of their legal costs.
The proposed policy is patterned after one used by the county and a number of municipalities, City Attorney Thomas Trask said in reply to Shimkus. Safety Harbor has had such a policy in place since 1990, he said.
“What we are doing is absolutely legal and appropriate,” Trask said, pointing out that the commission as a whole makes the decision as to whether to reimburse a member’s legal costs.
Commissioner Joseph Barkley said a process that allows officials to recover legal fees is needed to attract a cross section of citizens to public service that may not be able to afford the cost of defending themselves.
“Anybody can have charges brought against them by a citizen for no reason whatsoever,” Barkley said.
The proposed resolution protects honest citizens by providing them financial backing, he said.
Commissioner Jack Nazario said public officials need to have some protection when performing their public duties in good conscience.
Resident Mark Naedel scoffed at the use of Arbutine’s case as an example of why a fee reimbursement policy is needed.
“He is one of the wealthiest people in the city,” Naedel said.
In a related action, the commission declined to vote on a request by Arbutine for reimbursement of his legal costs related to the ethics complaints filed by David Shimkus.
Commissioner Shimkus pointed out that Arbutine’s request did not meet several criteria of the newly adopted reimbursement policy. The resolution caps allowable attorney’s fees at $175 an hour, for example, while Arbutine is seeking payment for hourly costs that range from $250 to $275, she said.
Also, the new policy states that claims must be filed “within 30 days of conclusion of the matter.” Arbutine’s case was settled more than two months ago, Shimkus said.
The mayor’s expenses are already covered by an insurance policy the city has with the Florida League of Cities, City Clerk Debra Sullivan said. That policy has no time or dollar amount limits, and does not require action by the commission, she said.
Arbutine said his purpose in requesting the commission’s approval was to “bring it into the sunshine” rather than just submitting his expenses to the insurance company without the commission’s knowledge.
Commissioner Suzy Sofer recommended the commission “table” Arbutine’s request, as it did not meet the requirements of the new policy and his expenses are covered by the city’s insurance. The commission agreed, in a 4-0 vote that excluded Arbutine who had recused himself from voting on the issue.
Rusinowski gets Planning Board seat
Wanda Rusinowski was appointed as a member of the city’s Planning Board. She currently serves as an alternate member.
Rusinowski attends most commission meetings and often expresses her views on agenda topics. She has run twice for a seat on the commission.
Rusinowski’s civic involvement was noted by Commissioners Sofer and Nazario in approving her appointment.
Steven D’Avolio was chosen as an alternate Planning Board member.