Council Denies Settlement in Clean Water Act Suit

In a unanimous vote during their Tuesday, April 2 meeting, Gulfport City Council members denied partial settlement terms in a lawsuit filed against the city by Suncoast Waterkeeper, Inc. (SCWK) and others 16 months ago for what the plaintiffs describe as “sewage infrastructure failings.”

Justin Bloom, executive director of SCWK and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the suit filed on January 4, 2017, told the Gabber in December 2016 that the failings “are a regional problem in municipalities throughout the Tampa Bay area.”

Gulfport contracts with the city of St. Petersburg for wastewater services including treatment. When treatment systems are overwhelmed during weather events, spills may occur with discharges into water areas adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico such as Tampa Bay, Clam Bayou and Boca Ciega Bay. The latter two border Gulfport.

According to the lawsuit, “Gulfport’s illegal discharges of raw and/or partially treated sewage degrade water quality and harm aquatic life, and thus impairs Plaintiffs’ members’ use and enjoyment of the ocean and bay waters and other waters adjoining and in Gulfport.”

SCWK is based in Sarasota and is joined in the lawsuit by the Our Children’s Earth Foundation, which is headquartered in Napa, California with a satellite office in Palm Beach, and, the Ecological Rights Foundation of California.

According to court documents, the plaintiffs claim that the city has violated the federal Clean Water Act.

Detailed terms of a possible partial settlement have been discussed with council members in what are called “shade meetings” that by law are not open to the public. The public records of these meetings will not be available until the case is settled. 

The most recent shade meeting on Thursday, March 28, “was very informative,” said Mayor Sam Henderson. “I am not happy with how things have gone previous to that. And, I’m not happy with where that got us, and the time it took to get us there. And, how murky that road was for us.”

No other councilmembers chose to comment.

The city’s insurance company has been supplying legal counsel during the lawsuit, said City Attorney Andrew Salzman. “We also have opinions from outside council.”

Councilmembers provided direction to Salzman and city staff to contact the insurance company regarding the legal representation they have supplied.

On Wednesday, April 3, the city plans to advise the United States District Court Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division of the council’s decision to deny the current partial settlement terms.

Gulfport’s elected officials, city staff and their attorneys have chosen not to comment on pending litigation, which is standard practice. The results of Gulfport’s partial settlement agreement will not be available to the public until the case is settled.

A case status conference has been scheduled for Wednesday, April 17 at 9:30 a.m. before Judge Susan C. Bucklew in Courtroom 10B of the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse, 801 North Florida Avenue, Tampa.

Review specific lawsuit settlement terms that were being discussed as of the latest public record dated December 19, 2018, which recently became available in an online court database here.

Grand Prix Boat Race Impact

A large turnout of over 40 people, including a few city staff members, were in the audience for the April 2 meeting and 16 spoke about a variety of topics in the initial public comment portion of the meeting.

Resident Phyllis Plotnick focused on the Grand Prix boat races held Friday, March 29 through Sunday, March 31, its third year.

“I’ve never been a fan of the boat races,” said Plotnick. “I don’t see it as a great fit for Gulfport. I’m concerned that we’re bringing in too many people and that we might want to consider our priorities. My major question is, whom does this serve? Does it serve the residents? Does it serve people coming in on a one-time basis? Does it serve our restaurants? 

“I know there is quite an expense to [host] the event for the city. I wonder if it’s being made up with the donation to the Michael J. Yakes Foundation?”

Maddy Guenther who owns O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille, the local restaurant that is the main sponsor of the race, directs the non-profit foundation that is named after a former mayor of Gulfport. Her husband Joe Guenther, serves as the incorporator of the foundation and manages the restaurant.

According to the race website, proceeds benefit the foundation “whose mission is to help underprivileged children and seniors in the Gulfport area.” Levels of race sponsorships for 2019 were listed for sale ranging from $1,000 to $25,000. For details, visit grandprixgulfport.com/sponsors.php.

Plotnick, a Vietnam era veteran, lives within blocks of the beach and also expressed concern about the loud sound made by the event’s helicopter that monitors wildlife presence in the offshore racecourse.

“I experienced something I hadn’t experienced in 50 years and that was a bit of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I worked in a burn unit and we heard helicopters often when the soldiers were being brought in.

“I’m asking you, if we’re going to continue this event, to think about some of these concerns so we can bring the best together for our city.”

Several other residents who spoke about the race topic echoed Plotnick’s viewpoints.

Others were also concerned about the impact the race had on local businesses and their employees.

“The Gulfport Merchants Chamber is now creating polls,” said Scott Linde, vice president. “And, we’ll have metrics on all of the events that take place in the town. We have early returns [from the boat race] – 14 responses. We’ll be collecting those over the next two weeks and we’d like to take the opportunity to report back to you the impact for businesses on Beach and Shore” boulevards.

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