An appeals court ruling is forcing the City Commission to reimburse up to $145,000 in attorneys’ fees and court costs in a beach-access case, and to release the transcript of a 2008 private meeting with its city attorney.
This legal expense comes after the city already spent nearly $250,000 defending a series of related lawsuits filed by two Pass-a-Grille homeowners contending that the city infringed on their beachfront property rights.
Chet Chmielewski, one of the original litigants, died in April, but his wife, Katherine, and now his son Paul are continuing the legal action against the city.
The Chmielewskis originally purchased the home in 1972 and subsequently secured a fee-simple title to the beach portion of the property.
At issue is whether the city is illegally using beachfront property owned by the Chmielewskis — and whether the city should pay the family damages for that use.
The trial court has yet to rule on this inverse-condemnation suit filed by the couple in 2009.
In the 2009 case, the Chmielewskis requested transcripts of six private commission-attorney “shade” meetings relating to a 2006 lawsuit filed by the Chmielewskis that was settled through mediation in 2008.
The settlement stipulated that the couple did own the beach all the way down to the mean high water line and that beach access was prohibited to the public, except for other property owners within the Don CeSar subdivision.
The city maintains that since the city-owned Don Vista Cultural Arts Center is in that subdivision, people using the center have the right to be on and use the beach behind the Chmielewskis’ home.
That policy led the Chmielewskis to file another lawsuit in 2009 alleging that the city had effectively “taken” their property and should pay damages for the lost private beach.
The city countered that this effectively reopened the 2008 settlement, rendering the 2008 shade meeting transcripts still private and protected by the state Sunshine Law.
The city’s Sunshine Law argument was upheld by the trial court.
The Chmielewskis’ subsequent appeal was supported by an amicus brief filed by the First Amendment Foundation.
The Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court decision, ordering the city to release the single challenged transcript and to pay the Chmielewskis’ related court costs and legal fees.
“Unlike the City, we can discern no meaningful connection between a lawsuit that established the Chmielewskis’ ownership of a parcel of land and a subsequent lawsuit alleging a government taking, through inverse condemnation, of their property,” the appeals court stated in a sternly worded ruling.
“Apparently fearing some unarticulated maleficent use of the shade meeting transcript, the city urges secrecy,” the ruling stated, adding, “The city’s posture calls for an unwarranted expansion of a limited legislative exemption to the release of public records.”
With that ruling in hand, the commission decided, against the advice of City Attorney Mike Davis, not to challenge the appeals court decision but to instead try to negotiate lower court costs and legal fees to the Chmielewskis.
If that proves unsuccessful, the city will ask the original trial court judge to decide how much should be paid.
The commission also decided to immediately release the contested shade meeting transcript.
That 39-page transcript shows the commission discussing how to settle the 2006 Chmielewski lawsuit, including whether or not the couple would accept a settlement, including a possible cash payoff.
Throughout the shade meeting, Davis and the commission appeared to agree that the Chmielewskis did not have legal ownership of the beach behind their home, but proving that would be difficult and potentially costly.
The 2006 case cost the city $58,000 in legal fees.
The city has spent another $153,782 in legal fees so far on the still-pending 2009 lawsuit and $33,630 for the public records appeals dispute.
Because the 2009 case involved damages, the city’s liability insurance firm is now defending the city and there should be minimal continuing costs — unless, of course, the city loses and has to pay damages.
“This judgment is nothing compared with what is coming up,” former Commissioner Harry Metz warned the commission last week. “This next case will probably cost a million dollars or more.”