By Dan Moffett
Lawyers for the town of Gulf Stream are pushing an aggressive trial schedule they hope will resolve by the end of this year all the lawsuits filed by Martin O’Boyle and Chris O’Hare.
That’s saying something, because the two residents started the year with close to 50 cases pending against the town.
“We’re ready to tee them up and go to trial,” said Joanne O’Connor, an attorney with the West Palm Beach law firm of Jones, Foster, Johnston & Stubbs, representing the town. “We expect to win them all.”
At least seven lawsuits, mostly involving public records disputes between the town and the two men, are expected to be heard in nonjury trials in Palm Beach County Circuit Court during the first half of the year, O’Connor said. She and Robert Sweetapple, a Boca Raton lawyer hired by the town, are representing Gulf Stream.
O’Connor says she and Sweetapple intend to list as many cases for trial in Circuit Court as possible in the months ahead. “I think more than 40 of them can be resolved,” she said.
The town’s lawyers think many of the lawsuits, perhaps dozens of them, will never make it to the courtroom because judges are likely to dismiss them as frivolous or legally insufficient. O’Connor thinks the town’s goal of clearing the deck of its legal cases in 2016 is achievable.
“I can’t imagine they would go into next year,” she said.
O’Boyle and O’Hare have criticized the town for not showing good faith in efforts to negotiate a settlement, a charge town officials deny. An attempt to bring the parties together for negotiation talks in December fell apart at the last minute, sources said.
Mayor Scott Morgan has said for months that the town is willing to negotiate, but O’Boyle and O’Hare must agree to drop all their lawsuits as a condition of a settlement.
Morgan, who had a long career as a trial lawyer in Pennsylvania, was elected mayor in 2014 on the promise he would oversee an aggressive defense of the town in the courts. He said 2015 was a good year for Gulf Stream and he was expecting that to continue. The town has set aside about $1 million in its budget to cover legal fees.
“We’re pleased with the progress we’ve made so far,” Morgan said. “For some reason, they (O’Boyle and O’Hare) don’t want to resolve these cases. We want to resolve these cases.”
The town had a significant setback in June when a federal judge threw out a racketeering suit against O’Boyle and O’Hare that alleged a conspiracy to use public records laws to defraud municipalities across the state. Gulf Stream is appealing that decision.
However, Morgan can point to several victories in the federal courts — rulings that went against O’Hare or O’Boyle in cases involving allegations of civil rights violations concerning campaign sign rules, police behavior and fees for public records. The town’s lawyers also successfully defended Morgan against allegations of slander.
Gulf Stream also won rulings in state court cases involving O’Hare’s rejected permit requests for a solar roof on his house and a shooting range, and O’Boyle’s complaint about utility lines crossing his property.
Elsewhere, the Florida Commission on Ethics issued three rulings that went the town’s way, rejecting O’Hare’s complaints against Town Attorney John Randolph, Morgan and Sweetapple.
Jonathan O’Boyle, Martin’s son, says Morgan has wrongly accused the O’Boyles and The O’Boyle Law Firm of criminal and unethical behavior.
“Morgan made those same accusations in a 2014 bar complaint,” Jonathan O’Boyle said. “The Florida Bar dismissed that complaint on May 20, 2015, and I became a Florida attorney shortly thereafter. Morgan squandered taxpayer dollars in attempting to prove criminality and prevent me from obtaining my license. ... Morgan says that he has ‘denuded’ my firm. Not true.”
The town got some encouraging news from Tallahassee in January when a Florida Senate committee approved a bill that puts new restrictions on attorney fees in public records lawsuits.
The Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee unanimously approved SB 1220, sponsored by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami. The bill removes the requirement that judges must give attorney fees to people who win public records suits against state or local government entities. Under the legislation, it would be left to the courts to decide whether payment of fees is warranted.
The Florida League of Cities and Florida Association of Counties have lobbied for the bill, citing Gulf Stream’s costly fight with O’Boyle and O’Hare as justification. The First Amendment Foundation and other open government advocates are opposing the change, calling it the most serious threat to the state’s Sunshine Law in its 40-year history.
Vice Mayor Robert Ganger testified to state lawmakers in support of the bill. “It’s clear we need some kind of relief from the Legislature,” he said.
The legislation faces an uncertain future as it moves through more committee hearings.
“At least they’ve noticed us,” Morgan said.