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Public Art Committee Days Numbered After Lawsuit Settled

An open meetings lawsuit settlement is having the City Commission think about decommissioning the Public Art Committee.

Sarasota's Public Art Committee could be decommissioned after City Commission members agreed to settle a lawsuit Tuesday about an open meetings violation.

The commission approved to settle the case by paying for the $6,000 legal fees using Public Art funds and voiding the authorized monies and vision of the project, effectively punishing the committee that resulted in the suit.

"There's no winners it," Mayor Suzanne Atwell said. "Public art is the City of Sarasota. Public art is very, very important to this city, and I hate to see something like this happen."

The lawsuit, filed July 11 in 12th Judicial Circuit Court, pitted , a Public Art Steering Committee and two steering committee members — artist Virginia Hoffman and city planner Clifford Smith — saying those defendants are responsible for violating the state's Sunshine Laws by not telling the public they were meeting to discuss and authorize a $55,000 project.

The project was to produce a themed public art exhibit inspired by Greenville, South Carolina's Mice on Main. Mayor Suzanne Atwell was inspired by the piece and created an ad-hoc committee on June 29, 2011, to focus on the project, according to the lawsuit. 

Commissioner Terry Turner recommended that the committee be decommissioned after befuddled that the city would still be sued after agreeing to resolve the matter.

"It seems to me as a practical matter, we're going to make mistakes. It's disturbing to me that when we make a mistake and admit a mistake, agree to rectify it, we still get sued and still costs the taxpayer money," he said. "It's not a good outcome."

Because the Public Art Committee was created as a permanent board by city ordinance, the commission would have to vote to decommission the committee Fournier said, but the move isn't a one-and-done move. The function of public art development and review would also have to be reassigned, he added, because part of certain development costs go toward funding public art as dictated in zoning code.

Commissioner Shannon Snyder recommended that the commission take over the function to reduce the cost of staff time and other administrative costs.

The case got complicated because the lawsuit alleged that committee met four times without notice. 

Because the committee turned into an advisory committee, it became subject to the Sunshine Law, which provides guidance on what meetings have to be open to the public and with sufficient notice, City Attorney Robert Fournier said. The committee should have met in the open, he added.

"I don't think anybody intentionally tried to conceal any deliberations," he said. "It just happened the way it happened."

Hoffman's title of public art coordinator, a volunteer position, will be eliminated, but will continue to volunteer with the city staff on art topics, as part of the settlement, Fournier said.

Hoffman and Smith also say they didn't believe they were a part of the committees and instead functioned as staff support, Fournier added, and that part is still in dispute, but decided not to argue that part in court. 

If the city wants to pursue the Mice On Main-inspired project, the commission must send the project back to the Public Art Committee, if it's still around, to gather comments and develop a recommendation for the commission, Fournier said. But by the looks of the commission's desire, an ad-hoc committee could instead handle the project.

"In the name of public art, we need to move forward with this," Atwell said. "This is kind of sad that this is happening, quite frankly."

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