Two Madeira Beach residents have filed a lawsuit claiming officials violated the state’s public meeting law when they chose a new commissioner by “secret ballot.”
The suit, filed late Friday, asks the court to rule that three of the four commissioners broke the Sunshine Law. It also asks the court to invalidate the appointment of Housh Ghovaee and to order the city pay the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees.
Madeira Beach Mayor Travis Palladeno called the lawsuit “frivolous.” City attorney Tom Trask, he said, had no problems with the way Ghovaee was chosen. To be doubly sure that nothing was wrong, Trask had the commissioners look over their ballots at a public meeting and confirm them. Had there been a problem, the mayor said, that would have cured it.
Attorney Ken Weiss, who filed the suit on behalf of Madeira Beach residents William G. Gay and Cathy P. Moore, said the public confirmation did not “cure” the violation. The vote may mean they validated an invalid act, but it does not “cure” the violation.
“All they did was acknowledge the fact that they violated the Sunshine Law,” Weiss said. “It was not a cure.”
The lawsuit arises from the way the city decided to replace Pat Shontz, who abruptly resigned from the commission during a meeting in June. Shontz resigned after voting to approve one proposed development but before the vote was taken on a second development proposal. That also passed.
Shontz’s resignation left an opening on the five-member council. Applications were accepted from city residents. Ghovaee and two others, John Douthirt and Joseph Fala, applied. The city sent ballots to each commissioner asking them to rank the applicants. Ghovaee won.
The week after, the commission met to, among other things, confirm Ghovaee. That’s when Trask asked the commissioners to confirm the rankings they’d given on their paper ballots and to vote. Three commissioners — Palladeno, Terry Lister and Nancy Hodges — voted to confirm Ghovaee.
The fourth, Elaine Poe, voted against. That vote saved her from being named in the lawsuit. The other three commissioners are named in the suit along with the city.
Weiss said the process was flawed from the beginning. The commission should have had all three applicants appear at a public meeting and an open discussion should have been held about their qualifications before a public vote was taken.
This is the third lawsuit Weiss has filed against Madeira Beach in recent months. The first two arose out of disputes over the proposed developments. Weiss has also recently filed a lawsuit against Treasure Island over a hotel that, he says, violates setback rules.
In the past, Weiss has filed multiple suits against St. Pete Beach over development issues.
Palladeno said Weiss is making a business of filing “frivolous” lawsuits.
“He’s found an easy golden egg doing frivolous lawsuits against cities on the beaches,” Palladeno said.
Weiss said he’s frequently been accused of filing frivolous cases, but his track record of wins indicates the lawsuits are not frivolous. And, he said, a lot of times he hasn’t been paid for his work but has done it pro bono.
But if a beach community, or any other city, wants to avoid a lawsuit, Weiss said the answer is simple: “Follow the law. I wouldn’t be filing a lawsuit if they followed the law.”