Judge: Madeira interviews didn’t violate Sunshine Law

A judge ruled recently that Madeira Beach commissioners did not violate the Sunshine Law, but the case may not be over yet.

MADEIRA BEACH — Despite a judge’s recent ruling declaring a lack of evidence in her rejection of multiple Sunshine Law violations filed against present and former city officials, the case appears to be far from over.

Attorneys for part-time resident William Gay have challenged the ruling and asked for it to be reversed to find in Gay’s favor. They argue that the judge failed to follow a state appellate court decision stating that both actual and “de facto” meetings must be held in public when matters are discussed that will come before a board for a vote.

At issue is Gay’s claim that four members of a prior city commission illegally held individual, illegal “de facto” private meetings with attorney Tom Trask, who they subsequently hired to represent the town.

Current Mayor John Hendricks and Commissioner Doug Andrews are specifically named in the lawsuit. Also named are Nancy Hodges and Helen Price, who no longer sit on the commission.

In April 2020, according to the lawsuit, the four commissioners met individually and privately with Trask with the intent to interview him for the position of city attorney. He was appointed six days later without other potential candidates being interviewed and without any public discussion, according to the lawsuit.

Gay filed his lawsuit more than a year later — an action that he was quite familiar with.

Three years earlier, Gay, who had moved to the city a decade before, successfully sued the city for an earlier Sunshine Law violation. That lawsuit was prompted when the then-commission used a secret ballot process to appoint a resident to fill a vacant commission seat.

Another lawsuit against the city, also successful, challenged the procedures used by the then-commission to approve a hotel development. As a result of the two lawsuits, the city was forced to pay Gay $135,000 for his legal fees.

A few months ago, a similar Sunshine Law-related lawsuit Gay filed against the city of Dunedin resulted in a settlement with the city not admitting doing any wrong but paying Gay $50,000 to prevent future legal costs.

If Gay prevails in his latest lawsuit, Madeira Beach will likely find itself again paying his legal bills. But first, Gay and his attorneys will have to convince Pinellas Circuit Judge Lauren C. Laughlin to change her mind and find the city at fault. Barring that, Gay would have to successfully appeal the ruling.

According to Judge Laughlin’s ruling, “By arranging the interviews as they did, the defendants (the city officials) did not violate the letter of the law, but it is questionable whether they violated the purpose of the law: to protect the public’s right to be present and to be heard during all phases of enactments by governmental boards and commissions.”

In his request for a rehearing, Gay’s attorneys argued the judge erred in her final order when saying that evidence was “required for the court to find that a ‘de facto’ meeting had taken place”.

Instead, they argued a judge is required to follow a 1979 court of appeal case involving the Orange County School Board which found that a scheduled series of one-on-one meetings between the then-superintendent and individual board members to discuss a future board action was, in fact, the equivalent of an illegal secret meeting among two or more members of the board, and therefore violated the Sunshine Law.

“Clearly, the closed-door meetings with Trask and the board members are ‘discussions’ that the Constitution prohibits,” Gay’s attorneys asserted.

The city’s attorneys “strongly” disagreed in their response to Gay’s request for a rehearing and reversed ruling.

“Nothing new has been offered by the plaintiff and all earlier arguments have been considered by this court,” they wrote in their response, arguing that the meetings with Trask did not violate the Sunshine Law.

“There is no evidence that the court overlooked or failed to consider any matters prior to entering its ruling … the fact that the court did not agree with the plaintiff’s argument is not grounds for a rehearing,” the city’s attorneys argued.

Hendricks declined to comment since the case is ongoing, but Andrews was not as reticent.

"Mr. Gay’s trying this in the court has caused great damage to this community,” said Andrews, adding that Gay’s repeated legal actions against public officials “scares people from running because they don’t want to be sued.”

Andrews said he is “thrilled” with the ruling, describing it as “a great day for Madeira Beach.”

He said Gay’s attorneys argued in court that they “know something happened but they can’t prove it.”

Gay declined to discuss the case but did comment that city commissioners often “don’t seem to understand what the Sunshine Law is all about.”

Under the Florida Constitution, Laughlin has at most 90 days to rule on the motion to rehear the case. Such rulings, however, often come within a week or two of a motion and response being filed.

And, whichever side prevails in the case in Circuit Court, it is likely to be appealed to a higher court, garnering yet additional legal fees on both sides.