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Commissioners get update on lawsuits

Apr 5th, 2012 | 0

By DOTTY NIST

The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) had been scheduled to consider a legal settlement on the afternoon of April 2, but this did not transpire.

The commissioners met at the Walton County Courthouse at that time, prepared to hold an executive session to consider a settlement proposed by Susanne Harris which, if approved, would have resolved the Miramar Beach resident’s two pending lawsuits against the county.

Harris had filed one of the lawsuits in 2011 to challenge the county’s 2010 purchase of a half-acre parcel at the intersection of U.S. 331 and Chat Holley Road. The other litigation, a motion for contempt and show cause order, stems from a 2009 court order. The judge’s order was in connection with the settlement of a previous lawsuit that Harris had filed against the county involving alleged public records violations.

According to Walton County Attorney Toni Craig, on March 26 Harris had presented the proposal to settle her litigation. The details of the proposed settlement have not been made public at this time.

Shortly after BCC Chairman Scott Brannon called the commission to order on April 2, Craig reported that there had been no court reporter available. Therefore an executive session was not possible. Craig also noted that there had been “very recent developments” with the litigation. She suggested that the commissioners get an update on those from Tim and Bill Warner of the Warner Law Firm, who were in attendance. The firm is serving as special counsel to the county with the litigation.

Tim Warner told the commissioners that, in the lawsuit related to the Chat Holley purchase, plaintiff Suzanne Harris’ legal representation had requested permission to file a second amended complaint. He said that on behalf of the county, the Warner Law Firm did not oppose this.

Warner explained that, in the second amended complaint, the plaintiff had dropped Count II. Count II had sought declaratory relief in connection with alleged violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law related to the county’s purchase of the Chat Holley property. In the count, Harris had made the argument that the county government did not authorize the purchase of the property as legally required in public session.

Two other counts are contained in the lawsuit, the first of those seeking declaratory relief in connection with alleged violation of the Sunshine Law in the retention of George Ralph Miller as special counsel to oversee the purchase transaction. The other count seeks declaratory relief in connection with alleged violation of Florida’s Public Disclosure Statute during the purchase of the property. This statute requires written disclosure, prior to the sale of property to a local government, of all owners of the property.

Included with the declaratory relief being sought in the lawsuit would be recovery of Harris’ attorney fees from the county.

Warner noted that the deadline for the county to file a response to Harris’ second amended complaint is April 18.

Warner commented that there had been a voluntary dismissal of 331 Bayside Properties from the 2011 lawsuit. This is the company owned by Lloyd Blue which had sold the Chat Holley parcel to the county. Representing the company, attorney Gary Shipman had filed a motion calling for 331 Bayside Properties be removed as a defendant in the lawsuit.

This leaves Walton County and George Ralph Miller as the two defendants in the 2011 lawsuit, Warner remarked.

Walton County as defendant and Harris as plaintiff are currently the only parties in the other litigation, the motion for contempt and show cause order lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges a violation of the 2009 court order in connection with District 1 Commissioner Scott Brannon’s use of a private e-mail account for official county business.

Warner detailed very recent development with that litigation. He told the commissioners that, on the way to meet with them that day, he and Bill Warner had received a copy of a motion to intervene in the the motion for contempt and show cause order lawsuit. Warner reported that the motion to intervene had been filed by the attorney representing Alan Osborne of Driftwood Estates and another party, a trust.

Both Craig and the Warners commented that they would be uncomfortable with the BCC considering the proposed settlement with Harris in light of this new filing, particularly since they had not yet had time to review it.

Bill Warner noted that it would be up to the court whether the motion to intervene would be granted. If it were granted, Osborne and the other party would become party to the lawsuit as plaintiffs, subordinate to Harris.

The commissioners adjourned without taking up the proposed settlement, which is to be reviewed at a later date in executive session, tentatively on April 10.

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