DEFUNIAK SPRINGS, Fla. — The Walton
County Commission conceded to pay attorneys' fees for citizen
activist Suzanne Harris after a vote in late December, with three in
favor, one against and one commissioner not present.
The attorneys' fees for Harris, which
were approved by the commission to be paid, totaled $175,000 and
according to a report.
Harris estimated total loss to taxpayers from just this case was
The attorneys' fees stem from a
that Harris lodged against the commission for allegedly violating the
Sunshine Law in Florida. She alleged in her suit that Walton County
hired attorney George Ralph Miller without notifying the public. In
2010, Harris filed a suit that accused then-Walton County interim
attorney Lynn Hoshihara of putting Miller on retainer without
expressly working with board to do so. According to the court ruling,
Miller collected more than $187,000 at the time.
In October 2015, Santa Rosa County
Circuit Judge John Simon granted summary judgment for Harris in the
Miller case, citing that unilateral moves by a government official
involving taxpayer funds but no authorization during a public meeting
are illegal. The county initially chose to fight paying the fees, but
an agreement was formulated that December.
At the recent meeting, Commission
Chairwoman Cecelia Jones cast the lone vote against the proposed
terms. Harris, who said the claims have cost the county hundreds of
thousands of dollars, was critical of Jones' vote and accused Jones
of trying to prolong the battle, according to nwfdailynews.com.
Jones could not be reached for
comment, nor could any of the other commissioners when attempted to
be contacted by The Florida Record.
Kennedy, a managing partner at Kennedy and Kennedy law firm in
Mankato, Minnesota, told The Florida Record that the
attorneys' fees seem expensive.
"I am not familiar with the details of the case, but it does
seem that the attorney fees are high in this matter," he said in
an email interview.
Kennedy offered a possible reason for the price tag of the
attorneys' fees and the reasons for the Walton County Commission to
agree to pay up.
"If matters are highly contested and the issues are unique,
the costs rise," Kennedy said. "The recommendation of the
county attorney was likely based on his analysis of whether they
would prevail and the costs of defense."
Kennedy said there are no right and wrong opinions when it comes
to voting on an issue.
"Ms. Jones' vote not to accept the settlement does not have
any ethical implications, and it is not uncommon for parties to a
dispute to have differing views of what is appropriate," he
Harris has filed three separate lawsuits against the county for
violating the Sunshine Law and has won all three cases.
Harris was represented by Matt Gaetz.