Manatee May Cover Legal Fees for a Sunshine Law Investigation

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The Manatee County Council of Commissioners may decide to cover $ 60,000 in legal fees that two officials racked up as they battled allegations they broke Florida’s Sunshine Act.

At the next regular council meeting on Tuesday, May 11, the commissioners will vote to decide whether to cover the fees Commissioners James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge paid to hire private attorneys to represent them in the case.

The $ 60,000 bill is a direct result of a complaint filed by Sarasota-based paralegal Michael Barfield, who applied for public registration for information relating to the November 19 board vote for move forward with the dismissal of former county administrator Cheri Coryea.

Barfield disputed that the commissioners, who were sworn in two days before the vote, had conspired and violated Florida’s sunshine law which prevents elected officials from the same body from discussing matters outside of public meetings.

After two weeks had passed without Satcher and Van Ostenbridge producing the text messages, emails and other public documents, Barfield sued the commissioners. He also filed a complaint that sparked an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Special agents completed their preliminary fact-finding investigation in March and said they had found “no information obtained to prove that a criminal offense had been committed”.

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02/18/21 – The Manatee County Commission may choose to cover the $ 60,000 Commissioners James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge paid in a public trial. In this file photo from The Bradenton Herald, Commissioner James Satcher reads an EPFL subpoena after being served before a public work meeting on February 18, 2021. Tiffany Tompkins [email protected]

The trial, which also named Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, continues to unfold in the court system. According to court documents, Barfield withdrew Satcher and Van Ostenbridge from the trial after reaching a settlement agreement on April 23.

The $ 60,000 payment covers “legal fees, costs and settlement payments,” County Attorney Bill Clague wrote in a note. He said Florida law allows the county to cover these costs because the case involved Satcher and Van Ostenbridge “performing their official duties for a public purpose.”

While the board may choose to cover these costs, this is not a requirement and will be at the discretion of the board. Generally speaking, Barfield said Satcher and Van Ostenbridge would not be allowed to vote on the motion. Clague did not immediately respond to a Tuesday afternoon email asking for clarification on the matter.

Barfield called the $ 60,000 bill “astonishing”, noting that the settlement payment he received was around $ 6,000 to cover his court reporter fees, filing fees and other charges. legal.

“That would mean their own fee is $ 54,000. It’s mind-blowing, ”Barfield said Tuesday. “It’s a shocking number. There was not what I would call heavy litigation in this matter. Maybe they are asking for a fee for the criminal investigation, I’m not sure. I cannot justify how they would have arrived at $ 60,000 in the public records matter.

Clague’s memo mentions that lawyers represented Satcher and Van Ostenbridge in the FDLE investigation, but the agenda posted online Monday afternoon does not include receipts or billing information.

“We are entitled to these invoices and frankly I am surprised that this is not part of the package. It must be a reasonable cost. It’s not like they can claim to have paid a much higher amount, like $ 600.00, ”Barfield explained. “There should be billing details that Bill Clague has from the attorney to justify how much time they spent on the case and what they were doing.”

No settlement has been reached with Baugh. If that changes in the future, Clague said the board would also be eligible to cover legal fees she incurred.

Public meeting

What: The Manatee Council of County Commissioners is expected to discuss the matter at a public meeting.

When: 8:30 am Tuesday, May 11.

Or: Manatee County Administrative Building, 1112 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.

Ryan Callihan is the Bradenton County Herald reporter, covering local government and politics. On weekends, it also covers the latest news. Ryan graduated from USF St. Petersburg.
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