NORTH PORT — A Sarasota County judge has denied a motion to dismiss a civil suit against Debbie McDowell, a sitting commissioner who was North Port’s mayor when the action was first filed in 2020.
Citing instances of misuse of wireless communications, Judge David Denkin on Wednesday favored a handful of Wellen Park homeowners who had complained that McDowell eavesdropped on their private strategy conference call meeting in March 2020.
John Meisel, Victor Dobrin, Glenn Mix, Paul Kahle and Jennifer Zambrano are with the West Villagers for Responsible Government, a group leading the effort to de-annex Wellen Park from North Port.
City commissioners denied an ordinance request to allow that in April. Another Sarasota County judge rules on pending issues related to de-annexation in the coming weeks.
McDowell and Wellen Park resident Michael Wasylik were named in a civil suit by the West Villagers group. Wasylik was a former West Villagers member and had supplied McDowell with pass codes for the March, 23, 2020, meeting, which was held virtually due to COVID-19. McDowell remained silent when a participant roll call was taken.
She later admitted listening, arguing that it was for educational purposes.
The complaint alleged that eavesdropping on a private meeting violated state wiretapping laws.
Wasylik faced the same allegation based upon his receipt of the private meeting invitation from a person named Bob Baker and forwarding it to McDowell.
An amended complaint argued that the meeting invitations with the login information and password were sent to 16 people, including Baker, by email on March 21, 2020.
A previous complaint, later dropped, had originally sued McDowell in her official capacity as a city official.
In seeking a dismissal of the complaint, attorneys for Wasylik and McDowell argued that the plaintiffs could not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in sending the invitation by email and had thus failed to state a cause of action.
Denkin granted Wasylik’s motion to dismiss, denying McDowell’s. That likely means a jury could decide whether McDowell is liable for damages in the civil suit, unless those involved agree to settle. The West Villagers seek $1,000 per plaintiff, plus lawyer fees.
McDowell had declined comment. John Meisel, president of the West Villagers group, said: “We knew we would prevail. The question is, why are North Port taxpayers paying for this?”