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Hearings held on Harris v. Walton County lawsuits

May 4th, 2012 | 0

By DOTTY NIST

An hour’s worth of arguments were heard on April 30 in the matter of Suzanne Harris’ legal challenge resulting from Walton County’s 2010 purchase of property on Chat Holley Road.

Count II of the lawsuit, which had alleged violation of the Sunshine Law in connection with the purchase, has now been dropped by Harris. However, the two other counts remain, one of which alleges that the retention of local attorney George Ralph Miller, the special counsel who oversaw the purchase, violated the Sunshine Law due to not being authorized in public session. The other count alleges violation of state statute requiring disclosure of the owners of property prior to its sale to a local government.

Walton County has filed a motion to dismiss Harris’ second amended complaint and to strike portions of the lawsuit that the county maintains to be “impertinent or immaterial.” Much of the contested portions relate to Count II, which is not included in Harris’ lawsuit in its current form.

With Walton County Circuit Judge W. Howard LaPorte presiding, attorney Bill Warner argued on behalf of Walton County that approval of Miller’s retention could have legally taken place in a number of different forms other than in public session of the county commission. He also maintained that Walton County did have advance knowledge of the identity of the members of the company that sold the Chat Holley property to the county.

Harris’ attorney, State Representative Matt Gaetz, countered that there had been no approval of Miller’s retention “in the Sunshine.” He maintained that the Sunshine Law would necessarily have applied to the county’s approval of a contract with the attorney. Gaetz warned that, if the court did not find a violation in this matter, it would be the first court in the state to authorize a government entering into a contract without public approval.

“Accepting these arguments is so dangerous…” Gaetz emphasized, “this court should not be complicit in these arguments.”

With allotted time elapsed, a continuation of the hearing was scheduled for 9 a.m on May 11 in the Walton County Courthouse

LaPorte also indicated that he would hold a hearing in a related lawsuit, Suzanne Harris v. George Ralph Miller, at 10 a.m., also on May 11 in the county courthouse. In that matter, Harris had sued to compel Miller to deliver records related to the Chat Holley transaction. The court had directed Miller to deliver the materials and pay Harris’ attorney fees. The May 11 hearing is to be an evidentiary one regarding Harris’ fees and costs.

Later on April 30, Walton County Circuit Judge David Green heard a motion to intervene in an additional Harris v. Walton County lawsuit, one alleging contempt of his court order that several years ago had directed Walton County commissioners to use only their official county email account in conducting official business.

A group of Driftwood Estates homeowners had filed a motion to intervene which, if approved, would have given them the status of subordinate parties in the lawsuit.

The homeowners have been engaged in a separate lawsuit against Walton County and have filed requests for public records, including commissioners’ email records.

After hearing arguments from the homeowners’ attorney, Shawn Heath, and from Walton County’s legal representation Tim and Bill Warner, Green ruled against the motion. His opinion was that the potential intervenors had not demonstrated sufficient evidence to support their standing to participate in the litigation.

A hearing on the contempt lawsuit is scheduled for June 12.

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