Sarasota City Commission caps legal expenses for Battie at $15,000, with litigation expected over allegations of racism toward him and downtown business owner

Attorney for Laurel Park resident accused of creating Facebook post calls for Battie to resign

Commissioner Kyle Battie offers remarks during the Feb. 5 meeting. News Leader image

With Sarasota City Commissioner Kyle Battie having to formally recuse himself, his colleagues voted unanimously on Feb. 5 to authorize the city’s payment of up to $15,000 for legal fees if Battie becomes the defendant in litigation related to a Jan. 16 presentation he made to his fellow board members.

That agenda item included Battie’s presentation of an alleged racist Facebook post directed at him and the female co-owner of the Corona Cigar Co. on North Lemon Avenue in downtown Sarasota. While Battie never named the purported perpetrator, she was identified, in later discussion that day, as Laurel Park resident Kelly Franklin.

On Feb. 5, Commissioner Erik Arroyo proposed what he called a firm cap of $15,000 for Battie’s legal expenses. Arroyo was the first commissioner to speak during the approximately hour-long discussion as part of the board’s regular meeting that day, which included public comments.

“It’s our duty to uphold the truth while responsibly managing taxpayer dollars,” Arroyo said.

Having known Battie for years, Arroyo continued, “I do not believe [he] was doubting what he was saying [on Jan. 16].” Further, Arroyo told his colleagues that he believes Battie was acting in his official capacity as a commissioner in making the presentation.

The $15,000, Arroyo pointed out, “ensures adequate legal support without compromising our fiscal responsibility.”

His motion also called for city staff to update the board members on the situation no later than six months from Feb. 5, or earlier, if warranted.

In the meantime, Mayor Liz Alpert said, “It’s my fervent hope that the parties can get together and work out some sort of apology, if you will …”

After Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked City Attorney Robert Fournier whether it would be appropriate to call for the parties to try to resolve their issues without litigation, Fournier replied that the commissioners could offer their encouragement for such an effort, but they could not dictate the actions of attorneys representing the parties.

“It would be my hope that all [of the parties] could get together,” Ahearn-said, “and use their resources to find out wo did this.”

She — like members of the public had that afternoon — included the nonprofit CityPAC organization and Tanya Borysiewicz, co-owner of the Corona Cigar Co., as affected parties.

During his Jan. 16 presentation, Battie put a list of CityPAC’s Advisory Board members on the overhead projector in the Commission Chambers, noting that Franklin is one of the leaders of the organization.

These are the CityPAC Advisory Board members. Image from the CityPAC website

During the early portion of the Feb. 5 meeting, when citizens’ comments were heard, Donna Moffit, who identified herself as the chair of CityPAC, told the commissioners, “Placing the names of CityPAC advisers on the overhead projector without any evidence was defamatory and profoundly disrespectful to both the members of CityPAC and the broad and diverse public you are sworn to protect and to serve.”

She further pointed out, “In Sarasota, for the last three years, any resident who speaks or questions something a developer desires is dismissed often … in ways meant to insult, demean or polarize along racial, gender or age-based lines. That, plus the visible and tangible impacts of breakneck growth and poor planning, are why CityPAC was formed …

“Clearly,” Moffitt continued, “some folks were uncomfortable with the daylight [CityPAC’s publications have] brought to the dynamics of decision making at City Hall and chose to perpetuate a vicious and divisive hoax that harmed everyone who witnessed it, as well as our social fabric.”

Mayor Alpert noted during the later discussion that she believes it is likely that an investigation into how the alleged Facebook post was created will be undertaken if litigation is pursued. Nonetheless, she added, she would “like to see this not dragged out indefinitely. It doesn’t benefit anybody.”

In opening remarks after introducing the Feb. 5 agenda item, Alpert also said, “What happened to Commissioner Battie was outrageous. We don’t know who did it … [but] we shouldn’t have that in our community.”

She added, “Let’s lower the temperature and try to have mutual respect for each other.”

‘Assaulted, attacked, maligned …’

Following Arroyo’s comments about his proposal for the payment of Battie’s legal fees, Battie told Alpert he wished to offer remarks.

“Is that a good idea?” she questioned him.

Battie proceeded, noting that he had offered no public statement in the aftermath of his Jan. 16 presentation, and he had not talked about it with members of the news media.

However, he added, “I’ve been assaulted, attacked, maligned, called dumb, called a clown, called a number of things from people that don’t even know me.”

He said he believes the alleged Facebook post was genuine and would continue to do so until someone could prove it was not.

This is the alleged Facebook post that Commissioner Kyle Battie showed his colleagues on Jan. 16. File image
This is a post on Kelly Franklin’s Facebook page from Dec. 26, 2022.

Battie also referred to the text messages that Franklin’s attorney, Richard A. Harrison of Tampa, had identified in regard to the alleged Facebook post.

Harrison asserted in a Jan. 28 email to the city commissioners, City Manager Marlon Brown and City Attorney Robert Fournier that exchanges between Battie and Borysiewicz of the Corona Cigar Co. — which Harrison had obtained through public records requests — showed that Battie and Borysiewicz knew as early as Dec. 19, 2023 that the alleged post was not true.

Harrison was among the 10 speakers who appeared before the commission on Feb. 5 to address the issue.

“It was a rogue commissioner who frankly duped all of you, embarrassed the entire city, … gave you no backup [materials for the Jan. 16 presentation], sucked all of you into this mess intentionally and now has the audacity to ask you to pay his fees,” Harrison told the commissioners.

Addressing Battie, Harrison added, “You should resign.”

Battie said the texts that Harrison showed the commissioners “were taken out of context,” adding, “I did my due diligence … in trying to vet [the validity of the alleged post].”

Then Battie said, “It’s something to sit here and have people lob stones right to your face … “

Moreover, Battie continued, referring to Franklin, “Everyone’s quick to run to protect the virtues of a certain individual and malign an African American man here today. … Someone, if not this individual, put this out into our public atmosphere. … It was an assault on me and everyone in this community that looks like me.”

He decried the fact that the alleged racist attack targeted Borysiewicz, as well. He referred to her “minority-owned business” in the city and the alleged post’s equating her “with an ape,” calling that “just a bridge too far.”

Still, Battie said, “If I’m wrong, I have no problem publicly apologizing.”

Commissioner Debbie Trice told her colleagues, that while they could  not “know what Commissioner Battie’s intent was [on Jan. 16], I honestly thought that his intent was to [address the topic of discrimination in the city].”

Trice further noted that people suspect the alleged post was a hoax. Yet, she pointed out, “In my opinion,” the texts that Franklin’s attorney had provided to the commissioners “could be hoaxes, also …”

If the Jan. 16 image that Battie showed everyone was a hoax, Trice stressed, “Somebody created it. … It’s like, ‘Follow the money.’ Who benefits from this hoax?”

‘Get to the bottom of it’

During the public comments, Franklin’s husband, Ron Kashden — who is a candidate this year for the District 2 seat that Mayor Alpert holds — talked of the diversity of his and Franklin’s extended family. “Kelly and I continue to call out prejudice in all its forms,” he said.

Additionally, he pointed out of Franklin, “She’s smart, irreverent, engaged with civic affairs, insightful and — speaking as her husband — irritatingly, usually correct.” He shook his head as he made the last part of that statement.

Ron Kashden. Contributed photo

In fact, Kashden continued, prior to the Jan. 16 City Commission meeting, Franklin had submitted electronic comments, “praising Commissioner Battie for discussing bigotry and promoting inclusiveness …” Yet, Kashden pointed out, Battie that day “heartlessly quoted [those comments] derisively during the meeting …”

He added, “The idea that somebody would inflame racism in our community for their own personal gain is utterly repulsive,” and the commissioners “should not finance it.”

Moreover, Kashden said, the commissioners “should get to the bottom of it,” denounce the incident and work “to prevent such sadistic political theater from ever happening again.”

Most of the speakers called for an investigation to determine how the purported post was created.

City residents Jose Fernandez and Martin Hyde, especially, urged the commissioners not to assume responsibility for paying Battie’s legal fees, if Franklin proceeds with litigation.

Hyde questioned whether taking that step would be “an appropriate and good use of taxpayer money.”

He asked the board members to consider the fact that more than “49 million Americans received food assistance … last year.”
“The right thing,” Hyde added, “will be to apologize and put [the incident] behind us.”

Flo Entler of Arlington Park stressed that Battie had not included the image of the alleged Facebook post in the agenda packet for the Jan. 16 meeting, so residents would understand the focus of his upcoming presentation.

Further, she pointed out, “A simple phone call to Ms. Franklin before the meeting, and we would not be here today. … The citizens of Sarasota should not have to cover Commissioner Battie’s legal fees.”

Battie’s father, Hank, was among the speakers, a fact that Battie noted in his remarks, indicating that his father always has supported him.

The options

Prior to calling up the speakers, Mayor Alpert asked City Attorney Fournier to address the commission’s options.

City Attorney Robert Fournier discusses the commission’s options for covering Commissioner Kyle Battie’s litigation expenses as City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs listens. News Leader image

First, Fournier explained that the two-part test in regard to whether a local government is obligated cover a board member’s legal fees involves an assessment of whether the conduct of the public official was “undertaken in the course of performing their official duties” and whether the conduct was undertaken on behalf of the city or on the person’s own behalf.

Battie may be able to make the argument that the racial slur against him “is a matter of community concern that could be brought up at a commission meeting,” Fournier said. However, Fournier added, “You have to be 100% correct about who you identify as the … perpetrator.”

In regard to covering Battie’s legal fees, Fournier laid out the following options:

  • The City Commission could acknowledge the conclusion that Battie was acting with a public purpose on Jan. 16, but it could await the ruling in the court case to decide whether to help Battie cover his legal fees. In other words, Fournier said, the city would not advance funds to Battie.
  • The commissioners could agree to pay the full expense of any litigation, from its commencement to its conclusion. Several years ago, Fournier pointed out, after then-Commissioners Suzanne Atwell and Susan Chapman were accused of having committed an open-meeting laws violation, Atwell settled, but Chapmen ended up fighting the case through the appellate court level. Chapman prevailed, and the city ended up reimbursing Chapman approximately $300,000 for her expenses, he added, noting that the litigation took close to five years.
  • The commission could agree to approve legal expenses in increments, “subject to any reasonable conditions that you might see fit to impose,” Fournier said. The amount could be capped, he added, with the provision that the commission would have to vote to agree to any additional payments above that cap.