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 around $700,000.
The attorneys' fees stem from a lawsuit 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.
Chris 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 said.
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.