When you hate to lose, sue

A $55,000 public art project that caused bitter infighting among the city’s public art specialists is now in court. On July 11, George Haborak sued the City of Sarasota to halt a project he can’t stand.

Haborak is chairman of the city’s Public Art Committee, which voted 5-1 against  a proposal for nine diminutive bronze sculptures to be placed around downtown for children to find. All of them would be less than a foot tall (the sculptures, that is), and they would be renditions of a ballet dancer, opera singer, visual artist, theater actor, circus performer, orchestra musician, marine scientist, filmmaker and (gasp) a writer.

The concept came not from the committee but from another body called “the steering committee.” City staff urged the City Commission to approve the steering committee’s proposal, called “Diversity of the Arts: A Child’s Journey.”

Haborak’s complaint says the steering committee “was created pursuant to a plan called the ‘Atwell Proposal’ following a meeting between the Mayor [Suzanne Atwell], City Manager, Deputy City Manager and others in late June 2011.”

Cliff Smith, the staffer assigned to the Public Art Committee, told the city commissioners on June 18, “Staff is requesting to go forward with the project as directed, working with the partners on the selection committee that have approved and bought into this project.”

The commissioners voted unanimously to go forward.

Haborak put a stick in that wheel with his July 11 lawsuit. He charges the steering committee violated the Florida Government-in-the-Sunshine Law. The complaint says, “The Steering Committee made recommendations to both the existing Public Art Committee and the City Commission which involved the expenditure of Public Funds.” And if he prevails, of course, he wants his legal fees reimbursed.

Suddenly, the $55,000 “Child’s Journey” is starting to resemble “The Meter’s Running,” a long-standing performance by members of the Florida Bar Association. Defendants in this particular show are the City of Sarasota, Clifford Smith, the Public Art Steering Committee and Virginia Hoffman, who was a member of the steering committee.

Haborak’s brief presents a strong picture of intentional violation of the Open Meetings section of the Sunshine Law. None of the meetings was held after advance notice, the filing says — nor were any of the associated email exchanges available for public scrutiny.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when people go outside the regular procedures. Atwell, for some unknown reason, decided she needed to circumvent the anointed and appointed Public Art Committee with one of her own, whose members then went off in various dark corners to make plans for public monies.

If Haborak’s allegations hold water, this circumstance is exactly why we have Government in the Sunshine laws. If the city were to settle immediately, we might be able to salvage some of the $55,000 budgeted for kids’ art. With meters running on both sides of this childish behavior, $55,000 won’t last long.