Destin finally provides answers to legal expense questions
DESTIN — A rift between Mayor Gary Jarvis and three City Council members appears to have played a role in preventing the dissemination of questionable information.
Pressure from the council members has also forced Jarvis to publicly confess an as-yet unacted-upon violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law and instigated a push to have the city staff provide documents showing just how much was spent to cure that violation.
The dollar amount appears to be somewhere around $30,000, a figure city officials have displayed a reluctance to disclose.
One of the more recent dust-ups involving Jarvis and council members began with a July 6 meeting at which Councilman Rodney Braden stated, according to meeting minutes, that he’d received complaints leading him to believe the mayor had cost the city about $30,000 in legal fees.
“If you’re referencing my violation of the public records’ request, it was based on an assumption and a mistake by myself,” Jarvis said at the meeting.
He also referenced a lawsuit.
City Attorney Kyle Bauman advised the council not to discuss “this specific lawsuit,” and the conversation ended with no answer to Braden’s question, minutes show.
The Northwest Florida Daily News had reported on the public records lawsuit after it was filed late last year. A complaint, lodged by Pointe Mezzanine LLC, alleged the city had failed to turn over certain documents as part of ongoing land use litigation.
In correspondence filed with an Okaloosa County court as part of the public records suit, attorneys for Pointe Mezzanine expressed particular interest in receiving text messages from city officials that were not included in initial discovery.
The lawsuit was settled quietly May 1, and City Council members Steve Menchel and Prebble Ramswell confirmed the case was resolved after Jarvis acknowledged failing to turn over text message conversations between himself and Joe Winkeler, a representative of the Pointe Mezzanine group.
Destin land use attorney Kimberly Kopp said Jarvis had mistakenly believed that because he knew Pointe Mezzanine was already in possession of the text messages in question he did not need to turn them over.
Efforts to obtain copies of the text messages have thus far been unsuccessful.
Jarvis said Friday that he has self-reported the violation to the Florida Commission on Ethics.
“Everything has been above board, open and honest,” he said. “I included a copy of my deposition and we’ll see what the Ethics Commission does. They may do nothing or it may be a reprimand or a small civil fine at worst.”
The $30,000 spending figure Braden asked about July 6 caught the attention of a Daily News reporter. He asked city spokeswoman Catherine Card on July 10 whether the mayor had actually cost the city $30,000 in legal fees and, if so, how.
Public records obtained this week show that after receiving the question, Card sent an email to Bauman, the attorney, asking “has the mayor directly cost the city any legal fees in this case?”
Bauman’s almost immediate response was “No he has not.”
This information was reported by the newspaper July 10-11. In separate emails sent out July 11, Braden, Menchel and Ramswell each filed strong objections to the city’s characterization of events.
“All three of you know the city of Destin did, in fact, have direct fees/costs associated with Mayor Jarvis’s (Florida Statute) 119 violation,” Menchel said.
Braden sent Bauman an email stating that he believed the city’s response had implicated him and other council members as compliant in the mayor’s wrongdoing.
“I respectfully request that the erroneous facts given by Catherine to the paper be corrected immediately,” Ramswell said in an email of her own.
Ramswell took her complaint a step further then her fellow council members. She notified the newspaper.
“You were not given correct information nor the whole story based on the quotes in the paper,” her email to the reporter who had written the original story said. “This is a huge and disturbing situation.”
On July 13, following consultation with Bauman, Kopp, City Manager Lance Johnson, Deputy City Manager Webb Warren and public records liaison Rey Bailey, Card sent an email to the Daily News.
“We are sending this information as clarification to our comment last week,” the email said. “The subject lawsuit was brought against the city of Destin, not the mayor in his personal capacity.”
“However, there were costs incurred attributable to the mayor’s actions in failing to produce certain records to the city and the requesting party that the mayor knew were already in the hands of the requesting party,” the city’s email said. “The mayor subsequently provided the city with such records and remedied the error in that regard. The city has incurred costs in the overall matter.”
Jarvis said he had no involvement in formulating responses to the newspaper.
“I did not see any of that until you put it in the paper,” he said.
Nowhere in the city’s response was there information related to the actual cost of the litigation. But invoices obtained this week through a subsequent public records request provide some information.
Between October of 2019 when the public records lawsuit was filed, and May, when it was settled, attorneys for Kopp’s firm and Anchors Smith Grimsley, the firm for whom Bauman is employed, invoiced the city 14 times.
The great majority of the invoices indicate in some way “public records defense” as the reason for legal work being conducted.
The estimated total cost of the public records litigation is $27,667.50.
Also, as Menchel noted in another email obtained by the Daily News, following the Jarvis violation the city paid the cost of drafting a new public records policy, spent money for one-on-one public records law classes for the mayor and all council members and bought new phones for the mayor and each council member in an effort to streamline public records retention.
In the original email sent by Card to the Daily News, she states — in answer to a direct question — that Jarvis has never been charged with a public records violation in regard to the Pointe Mezzanine LLC issue.
Menchel suggested in one of his emails to city staff following the July 10 article that the reason no investigation of the mayor’s actions has ever been conducted could be because the violation has been kept quiet.
“Plain and simple is the fact that the reason state officials have not found a violation is due to the fact that no one from the city has reported the confirmed (Florida Statute) 119 violation to the state officials,” Menchel said. “The public did not report the violation for the simple reason they did not know about it.”
Jarvis said he has “stepped up to the plate” and self-reported his October 2019 violation because he is not one to shirk his responsibilities.
“When you make a mistake, you own up to it,” he said.
Jarvis has been publicly feuding with Ramswell, Menchel and Braden for several months now. At the May 18 City Council meeting, Menchel went so far as to ask, without naming names, what steps the city’s charter provides for ousting an elected official.
Bauman, who was charged with researching the matter, has yet to report to the council on his findings. He told council members at their last meeting, July 20, that he would possibly provide an update at the next regular meeting.