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Photo by: Tim Freed - The combined library-Rachel D. Murrah Civic Center would demolish the existing center, pictured.
Winter Park / Maitland Observer Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 3 years ago

Library legal fight has cost Winter Park $200,000

Taxes for defense
by: Tim Freed Managing Editor

Winter Park’s library battle is lurching closer to a final chapter, but not without a serious price tag placed on the city.

Winter Park has spent $201,759 in legal fees since the controversy began last March when residents voted to issue bonds of up to $30 million for a new library/civic center.

The bond referendum to allow the city to finance the project passed narrowly with 5,416 votes in favor and 5,202 opposed, but a group of residents – a political action committee – challenged that the city didn’t properly notice the intended location of where the library would be built.

The dispute eventually went before Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schreiber in October. She later issued a ruling on Dec. 7 that validated the city’s desire to demolish the city’s existing civic center and construct a new events center, library and parking garage – all within Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

But City Manager Randy Knight said Winter Park will also face additional costs when they finally issue the bonds due to the drawn out legal battle. Interest rates are expected to increase multiple times over the coming year, he said, and each quarter point move in interest rates would push up the interest cost by approximately $750,000 over the course of the 20-year bonds.

“That’s still ticking,” Mayor Steve Leary said.

“The $200,000 that this lawsuit has cost the citizens of Winter Park is really just the tip of the iceberg.”

But the battle to halt the project in MLK Park continues. The political action committee made up of residents filed a motion for rehearing in response to Judge Schreiber’s recent ruling in favor of the city, but City Attorney Kurt Ardaman announced Monday that that request has been denied.

The only course of action that the group of residents can take now is to push the case to the Florida Supreme Court – a 30-day window to file started Monday. There’s also a separate lawsuit filed by the group of residents that still lingers as well.

That legal action takes issue with the city’s stance on a petition signed by more than 2,000 Winter Park residents looking to keep the library out of the park. Petitioners were required to gather 2,011 – 10 percent of the registered voters in Winter Park – to proceed.

The political action committee brought forth 2,256 signatures and had 2,034 approved.

Michael Poole, one of the residents behind the committee, told the Observer that the group could likely have obtained thousands more, but were only seeking to meet the minimum requirement.

But the group of residents received a certificate of insufficiency from city, which claimed that the political action committee did not submit their petition paperwork within the 30 days of the March 15 election – a requirement for a “reconsideration of a referendum.”

The residents appealed that decision and made their case in August that they filed the petition as an “initiative,” which has no such time limit.

The last time residents pushed an “initiative” through was to keep a minor league baseball stadium out of the same park last June. The group of residents submitted more than 2,000 signatures to keep out the proposed ballpark.

But the City Commission upheld the certificate of insufficiency over the library petition, which led to the existing lawsuit that is now before a panel of circuit court judges.

The legal costs of that lawsuit alone have reached $32,878. Sally Flynn, one of the residents who started the political action committee, said the mounting legal costs could all have been avoided if the city had simply recognized their initiative.

“The citizens have not been heard correctly,” Flynn said.

“If the city had put the location to a vote, it wouldn’t have cost them anything.”

Flynn said a decision has not been made yet regarding the other case going to the Florida Supreme Court.

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