Ex-commish offers to settle suit against city

Fruitland Park — August 27, 2013 — Former Fruitland Park commissioner Jim Richardson will settle one of two lawsuits he filed against the city if Fruitland Park will pony up $400,000, including $125,000 for Richardson’s lawyers, $15,000 for Richardson, $15,000 for co-plaintiffs Mike and Nancy Howard, and up to $100 each for Fruitland Park utility customers.

Richardson, who lost his bid for reelection last year, filed the lawsuit in February, claiming that Fruitland Park illegally charges residents $8 per month for police and fire services.

The fee—enacted by city ordinance in 2009—is legal under the state’s home-rule powers for governments, according to Fruitland Park City Attorney Scott Gerken.

The fee is also voluntary—utility customers can opt out of paying if they wish. But city utility bills don’t specify that the charges—$4 for police and $4 for fire—are optional.

Commissioners called a special meeting Monday night to review Richardson’s settlement proposal but voted to defer action until they can hold a special closed door meeting with attorneys.

That meeting is scheduled for September 5. Richardson gave commissioners until Sept. 6 to accept his settlement proposal. The case is Eed to go before a Lake County judge the following week.

Richardson’s proposal also calls for the city to discontinue the fee or identify it as a “donation” on future utility bills, and to advertise and administer a 90-day refund procedure.

Richardson’s initial lawsuit also alleged harassment by city officials after Richardson publicly criticized former city manager Ralph Bowers. That part of his lawsuit has been referred to U.S. District Court in Ocala.

Bowers later resigned amid allegations he sexually harassed a city employee. A civil suit that employee brought against the city was settled out of court.

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