By DOTTY NIST
With one of its three counts dropped and another struck due a judge’s decision, the one issue to be determined in what has been called the “Chat Holley” lawsuit is whether Walton County violated state statute by hiring special legal counsel without a public meeting.
The lawsuit, filed by Suzanne Harris in October 2011, challenged Walton County’s purchase one year earlier of a half-acre parcel at U.S. 331 and Chat Holley Road. The purchase was in conjunction with a road improvement project on Chat Holley. The litigation was filed in Walton County Circuit Court and assigned to Judge W. Howard LaPorte.
In its original form, Harris’ lawsuit contained three counts or causes of action, the first of those being the allegation that the county had violated Florida’s Sunshine Law by the retention of George Ralph Miller, the special legal counsel who oversaw the Chat Holley purchase, outside of public session. Another count also charged a Sunshine Law violation involving the county’s entering into a contract and purchasing the property, alleging that these actions had never been approved in a public meeting and should therefore be considered void. An additional count charged the county with violation of the state’s Public Disclosure Statute, stating that the county had purchased the property from 331 Bayside Properties, L.L.C., a company owned by Lloyd Blue and wife Alexa Pleas, without the disclosure being made at least 10 days prior to the closing that Blue and Pleas were owners of the property.
In March 2012, plaintiff Harris filed a second amended complaint that was absent the count charging that the county had not authorized in public session the entering into a contract on and purchasing of the property. Thus that issue was removed from the lawsuit.
In April 2012, LaPorte heard a motion by Walton County to dismiss the two remaining counts in Harris’ second amended complaint and a motion to strike material in the lawsuit that the county maintained was “impertinent or immaterial.” This was language related to the count that Harris had already dropped in that complaint.
On May 7, LaPorte ruled on those motions, declining to dismiss the count alleging that the special legal counsel had been retained without approval at a public meeting. However, the judge did grant that a number of paragraphs be struck from the litigation as requested by the county—and dismissed the count in connection with the alleged failure to disclose ownership of the property purchased.
On May 11, LaPorte heard a motion to dismiss Harris’ lawsuit on behalf of attorney George Ralph Miller, who is also currently named in the lawsuit.
Miller’s attorney Ruston Sanders argued that the one remaining count in the lawsuit does not even reference his client. Sanders maintained that the county government, not Miller, is the only proper defendant, since the alleged violation was the county government’s action of hiring Miller.
“It goes without saying that my client did not hire himself,” Sanders asserted,
Harris’ attorney, State Representative Matt Gaetz, countered that Miller, a former Walton County attorney, had considerable experience advising government on the Sunshine Law—and yet was party to being hired by Walton County “absent a vote.”
“It is alleged that Mr. Miller acted improperly,” Gaetz said.
Sanders responded that absent from the Harris’ allegations was anything to demonstrate that Miller had “anything to do with how he was hired.” He also said that it is his and Miller’s understanding and belief that the county’s present legal counsel was not retained at an open meeting.
“This action must be dismissed,” Sanders urged.
LaPorte told the two attorneys that he would review their arguments and issue a ruling at a later date.
After the hearing, Gaetz commented that he was not concerned about the judge’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit count involving the public disclosure requirement. Gaetz called the count concerning the hiring of Miller the “Big Kahuna” of the case.
Asked if Harris’ dropping of the count alleging Sunshine Law violation with the county’s approval of the Chat Holley purchase signified no further concerns on that matter, Gaetz responded no, that he and the plaintiff “hardly concede” the existence of those violations.
He explained that their preference is to focus on the matter of Miller’s retention, which they believe to be the strongest part of their case.