The Tampa Bay Times assigned two reporters to cover the City of Clearwater’s purchase of 1.4 acres of downtown land last night. However, the Times assigned no reporters to cover the city’s embarrassing loss in Pinellas circuit court earlier in the week in a matter involving 6.5 acres of land that the city had claimed it owns.
The city’s $4.5 million purchase of land coveted by the Church of Scientology was of great interest to the general public. However, the loss of these 6.5 acres of submerged land is equally interesting because it reveals questionable work by city legal staff. The outcome of the case may also have important implications for boating in the waters between Clearwater Beach and Island Estates.
Bill Blackwood is a retired Honeywell engineer and a 30-year resident of Clearwater. Blackwood owns a company called Bayesplanade.com, LLC which won a so-called “action to quiet title” lawsuit against the city this week. In simple terms, such a lawsuit is filed to suppress a claim by a specific party (but not all parties) to property specified in the quiet title action.
Blackwood filed his lawsuit in February of 2016 after the city in July of 2015 demanded that Blackwood cease and desist from “advertising [the disputed] city-owned lands for sale.” The dispute involves 6.5 acres of submerged land in waters off of Clearwater Bay, land that the city expressly stated in its letter that it has title to. Blackwood disagreed, and claimed instead that his company has title to the land.
The background to the court action is that Blackwood wants to build a mooring field in Mandalay Channel on 26 acres of submerged land that he owns. Mandalay Channel is a portion of the waters that lie between the northern portion of Clearwater Beach and Island Estates. Tying up a boat in a mooring field is less expensive than dock storage and allows the boat swing with the wind and tide without impacting other boats in the field.
Several cities in Florida operate mooring fields, including St. Pete, Sarasota, St. Augustine and Key West. Locally, Gulfport also had advanced plans for one before deciding to temporarily shelve the plan due to more pressing budget priorities . However, it appears that Blackwood’s would be the first private mooring field in the Tampa Bay area.
The Tampa Bay Times reported last September that “city and county officials were blindsided by the project because Blackwood started the application process at the top and received a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) in June” of 2016.
However, given that Blackwood’s lawsuit was filed several months prior to the issuance of the FDEP permit, the city should not have felt “blindsided.” However, the city attorney and other staffers may now feel other emotions, such as “embarrassment” or “regret”, after this week’s clear court order.
In his ruling, judge Jack St. Arnold found that the city “failed to present any evidence to negate or contradict the factual circumstances” which he listed as 32 points of “fact and conclusions of law.” In a half-page conclusion, the judge then found quite simply that Blackwood’s company owns the disputed land.
The day after the ruling, the city filed a motion for rehearing in which it claimed that the judge’s ruling “does not comport to [sic] the actual findings and conclusions enunciated by the Court” during a March 2nd court hearing.
The city further claimed that it was “unaware that the Plaintiff has submitted its proposed order to the Court,” despite also admitting in the same filing that it received a copy of the proposed order from Blackwood’s attorney 13 days before the judge ruled. Notably, the city had submitted its own proposed order to the court a few days after receiving Blackwood’s proposed order, and a week before judge St. Arnold issued his ruling.
At 6:30 in the morning the day after the city asked for a rehearing, Blackwood sent a blistering e-mail to city council members and others in which he said that “the Clearwater City Council must responsibly cut its losses, finally accept it was dead wrong, and recognize the Court’s Summary Judgment.” Blackwood claims that the city “has already spent well in excess of $30,000” on the lawsuit.
In the aforementioned July 2015 letter from the city to Blackwood, assistant city attorney Laura Mahony wrote:
“I agree that this matter should be put to rest once and for all. To put the matter to rest, I suggest that Mr. Blackwood execute a quit-claim deed in favor of the City for the disputed submerged lands, as the chain of title clearly indicates title has vested in the City.”
Mahony’s use of “I” rather than “the city” in her letter reveals a relaxed communication style not appropriate for important legal matters affecting Clearwater’s navigable waterways. The city may be spending too much time “going clear” instead of thinking clearly about important land issues such as this one.
More importantly, attorney Mahony had expressed the city’s desire to “put the matter to rest once and for all.” But after Blackwood filed his lawsuit, a different city attorney named Richard Hull took action that apparently conflicted with Mahony’s statement.
Hull claimed in court document that Blackwood failed to cite “the source” of the city’s claim on the land in his lawsuit, a claim which the city had clearly stated in Mahony’s letter. In other words, instead of squarely seeking to “put the matter to rest once and for all,”, Hull’s approach was to try to thwart the lawsuit. Had he succeeded, the question of who owned the submerged land would have remained unresolved.
The city’s litigation tactic of trying to thwart the case rather than seeking to finally decide whatever issue the plaintiff seeks to resolve is a common legal tactic. However, that tactic has failed so far in this case. A thwarting tactic may also be inappropriate for a city acting as agents on behalf of the people, especially given that the city had stated that “this matter should be put to rest once and for all.”
Presumably, the city’s desire to “put to rest once and for all” the ownership of the disputed land is its guiding light in this matter, regardless of whether the city thinks it’s “winning” or “losing” the court case.
Decisions on city legal strategy are made by Clearwater city attorney Pamela Akin, who has held that position since 1994. Akin’s salary is $181,621 per year and she received a 3% raise in both 2016 and 2015. Only city council can hire or fire the city attorney, not the city manager.
The city had already lost round #1 in it’s battle with Blackwood when FDEP denied the city’s appeal of the mooring field permit it had issued to Blackwood in June of 2016. FDEP’s order dismissing the city’s petition was issued in December 2016. This week’s court order suggest that the city just lost round 2, may be down for the count, and should think about throwing in the towel.
The reasons for the Times’ decision to not cover this story any further since last September are unknown. The Times reported at that time that the city expected to “squash the [mooring field] project.” Now that round #2 was won by the “squashee”, a follow-up story might have been in order.
Whether the city’s actions in this court case were part of that attempt to “squash the project” is not clear, and the city does not comment on active litigation. However, once the litigation is over, all city records in this matter, including those on the city’ legal strategy, become public record. The Guardian will follow up and report what that strategy was.
As always, the Guardian reports and the readers decide. Please like our Facebook page to find out when we publish new stories.