NORTH PORT — A Sarasota firm is suing North Port and its city manager for failing to turn over information from a public records request.
Michael Barfield, a Sarasota paralegal and civil rights advocate working under his DeNovo Legal Services firm, had asserted the city essentially stonewalled him in the pursuit of electronic communications of North Port city manager Pete Lear, who was earlier embroiled in an office romance.
Lear has since returned from paid suspension over the affair.
The same firm filed a similar suit against the city of Venice in 2018, alleging Sunshine Law violations for not providing texts and messages. Venice settled the suit two years later.
On Wednesday, North Port officials produced an invoice sent to Barfield, who is leading the records quest. The invoice details costs of compiling a response, according to a city spokesperson. It’s dated Sept. 24.
Barfield said Wednesday he had not received the invoice. The civil suit is based on a lack of answers.
“There was a clear response,” to Barfield’s request, city spokesperson Josh Taylor said Wednesday. “Maybe he should check his spam folder,” meaning the invoice may have been misdirected from a traditional inbox folder. “If he wasn’t getting something, he could call us.”
Details of the legal records requests are spelled out in documents filed Wednesday with the 12th Judicial Court in Sarasota County. In those papers, the plaintiff, which is Barfield’s Denovo Law Services LLC, claims North Port failed to deliver public records sought in connection with Lear. Sarasota attorney Robert P. Watrous had filed the civil suit on Barfield’s behalf.
Barfield said his office had sought electronic records for Lear from Feb. 3 through Sept. 23. That would include emails, text messages, social media accounts “or any other electronic platform, app, or software capable of sending digital or electronic data,” according to a civil suit filed Tuesday and fully updated in lengthy detail Wednesday.
That information would include Lear’s personal cell phone, according to Barfield, who asserted that North Port had stonewalled the public records request since it was filed in late September.
But North Port on Wednesday produced the invoice that detailed about $2,500 in anticipated costs to compile the information, Taylor said. The invoice also lists Nov. 23 as a due date to review, redact sensitive information, and to deliver some 39,311 emails, 838 text messages and 227 other shared records relating to Lear over that timeframe. The invoice also lists a $1,262 deposit request.
Barfield wanted to track Lear’s activities over that time. Lear was placed on paid leave in July for an admitted workplace romance with a subordinate.
The invoice, Barfield added, is a side issue, as the the city’s fees for compiling public records “is a No. 1 tool used to discourage access to public records. That’s an outrageous fee.”
A report on Lear was prepared by a Fort Myers investigator. The findings in August showed that Lear and Planning Division manager Nicole Galehouse had admitted their consensual relationship. The 59-page Sproat Workplace Investigations report detailed the affair, with contributing dialogue from a series of staffers.
But Sproat’s report found little evidence that Lear had violated terms of his five-year contract, as ethics or integrity weren’t spelled out clearly, according to three of the commissioners voting to reinstate Lear to his $162,000-per-year job.
In seeking public records over that period, Denovo “has a clear legal right to inspect and copy any portion of a record responsive to the records request to which a valid (statutory) exemption does not apply,” according to language in the civil suit.
This isn’t Barfield’s first run-in with North Port. The city sued him in 2014 over a public records request regarding names of police officers involved in an alleged sexual assault. He had pressed for the names of Melanie Turner and Ricky Urbina, two North Port police officers who, at the time, were at the center of a criminal investigation tied to the alleged sexual battery of a 38-year-old woman. Urbina later died by suicide, and the city subsequently dropped its lawsuit.
Because Wednesday’s civil suit had just been filed, North Port couldn’t provide a detailed response, as it “came as a surprise to the city clerk, as well,” Taylor said. Barfield added in Wednesday’s court filing that Lear had read the September records request and failed to respond, however, he said.
Barfield sued the city of Venice in January 2018 after the city did not produce texts from some of its code enforcement employees. The city eventually turned over the records and $45,321 for legal fees earlier this year.