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Judge rules in favor of Suzanne Harris in final count of "Chat Holley" lawsuit

The DeFuniak Springs Herald of DeFuniak Springs, Florida

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Attorney hired "out of Sunshine," court finds

A Santa Rosa County judge has ruled in favor of Miramar Beach resident Suzanne Harris in the last remaining "count," or cause of action for what has been called the "Chat Holley" lawsuit.

Circuit Court Judge John F. Simon, Jr., made the ruling on Sept. 30.

The lawsuit, originally filed by Harris in October 2011 in Walton County Circuit Court, 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 now-completed road improvement project at the U.S. 331/Chat Holley Road intersection, where a traffic light added as part of that project has been operational since May 2013.

In its original form, Harris' lawsuit contained three counts, 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 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 pub-He meeting and should therefore be considered void. An additional count charged Walton County with violation of the state's Public Disclosure Statute, stating that the county had purchased the property without the disclosure of its ownership being made at least 10 days prior to the closing.

In March 2012, 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.

Also in 2012, Walton County Circuit Court Judge W. Howard LaPorte dismissed the count in connection with the alleged failure to disclose ownership of the property purchased, finding that Harris lacked standing in the matter. However he declined to dismiss the count alleging that Miller had been retained without approval at a public meeting.

In 2013, in response to a motion filed by Harris, LaPorte grudgingly agreed to recuse himself from the lawsuit. This was followed by both of Walton County's other circuit court judges at the time, Kelvin C. Wells and David W. Green, also recusing themselves, resulting in the case being transferred to Santa Rosa County for hearing.

In October 2013, Santa Rosa County Circuit Court Judge Marci L. Goodman noted that neither party had raised a question about compliance with the Sunshine Law of Dec. 22, 2009 action by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) to hire Miller as special counsel to participate in an executive session on separate litigation filed by Harris involving public records---"and to help in this matter and any other duties that we think he might help us with at this time," as stated in the approved motion by District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander. Goodman also noted that in connection with that action that payments were made properly to Miller in accordance with a resolution approved by the county and that his bills were forwarded to the BCC and approved on a consent agenda in public session each month.

Goodman at that time ruled in favor of Miller, who had been named in Harris' lawsuit and who had argued the absence of any cause of action being cited against him personally by Harris.

"The payments made to Mr. Miller were approved by the Board in the manner prescribed under a resolution and there are no allegations against Mr. Miller in his individual capacity," Goodman wrote, adding, "As a matter of law, Mr. Miller performed his duties under the contract, relied on the terms of the contract, and was paid accordingly for his work."

As part of Goodman's order at that time, Miller was removed from the litigation. There has been no appeal of that order.

Miller's legal services contract with Walton

County was terminated in September 2011. He passed away in May 2015.

In connection with Judge Goodman's October 2013 order, proceedings against Walton County continued, with Goodman identifying the issue remaining as two legal services contracts signed with Miller subsequent to the Dec. 22, 2009 BCC action. These were contracts between Lynn Hoshihara, interim county attorney at the time, and Miller, which were signed on June 3, 2010 and Oct. 21, 2010.

On Sept. 30, 2015, Judge Simon, who succeeded Goodman in presiding over the case, found that neither those contracts nor the hiring of Miller in connection with the two contracts "were discussed, voted on or otherwise approved at a meeting open to the public and with notice provided and minutes taken."

Simon rejected Walton County's argument that, as part of the Dec. 22, 2009, action, "the Board authorized the hiring of Attorney Miller on a broader basis than just the pending Public Records action. Attorney Miller's retention as Special Counsel was appropriately approved by the Board of County Commissioners on December 22 2009, in accord with the requirements of the Sunshine Law, for the public records lawsuit, and other matters then pending."

Simon wrote, "The only pending matter identified or addressed by Walton County on December 22. 2009, was the resolution of the Harris public records litigation. The December 2009 retention of

Miller did not encompass future work or future contracts negotiated and executed by Ms. Hoshihara outside of a public meeting."

Simon referenced Walton County's Jan. 26, 2010, appointment of Hoshihara as interim county attorney with "authority and responsibility to review the legal schedules, assist in the transition, and work with the Board to secure outside legal counsel, as needed to stay on schedule with current legal issues, and to utilize local attorneys as outside counsel," as stated in the minutes for that meeting.

"Despite this specific directive," Simon wrote, "no record evidence indicates that Ms. Hoshihara worked with the Board at any public meeting after January 26, 2010 to obtain approval to subsequently hire or enter contracts with Attorney Miller."

Finding that the entering into the June 3, 2010 and Oct. 21, 2010 contracts with Miller "without a public meeting and authorizing action," represented a violation by Walton County of the Sunshine Law, Simon ruled in favor of Harris on the remaining count of the lawsuit, declaring void the legal contracts with Miller.

"The Court reserves jurisdiction over this matter to resolve pending motions, enter all necessary orders and judgments and determine the Plaintiff's entitlement to attorneys' fees and the amount thereof," Simon concluded.

Barring an appeal, Judge Simon's order is to become final on Oct. 30.

Copyright 2015 The DeFuniak Springs Herald, DeFuniak Springs, Florida. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: October 8, 2015

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