Sarasota resident to pursue legal action against Commissioner Battie over presentation during which he called her racist without apparently having tried to verify authenticity of photo

Kelly Franklin’s attorney informs city leaders of pending action

This is the alleged Facebook post that Commissioner Kyle Battie showed his colleagues on Jan. 16. News Leader image

On Jan. 10 — six days ahead of the Sarasota City Commission’s Jan. 16 regular meeting — City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs notified the city commissioners via email that she was adding two new items to the upcoming agenda.

One of them, she wrote, had been requested by Commissioner Kyle Battie.

The form included in the backup material for that item quoted Battie: “I would like to engage my fellow City Commissioners in a discussion related to civility, respect and rhetoric given recent communications/correspondence I have been provided. Given that our city advocates and promotes diversity of people, cultures, thoughts, ideas, positions, and our long standing relationships with organizations such as Embracing Our Differences, our Domestic Partnership Registry, our support of PRIDE’s requests/programs, our investment in our disadvantaged communities, etc. I know it is high time for a serious conversation with my fellow City Commissioners about where we stand as a body and as individuals when we are faced with such rhetoric. After I share my presentation and thoughts, I would respectfully like to hear from each City Commissioners [sic] their position on what I will be presenting. Silence is not an option. Thank you.”

Given the anticipation of an especially long public hearing scheduled ahead of that item, Mayor Liz Alpert announced during the Jan. 16 meeting that she was going to allow Battie to present his comments first. (See the related article in this issue.)

Battie proceeded to describe what appeared to be a racist attack on him perpetrated through a city resident’s Facebook post.

At no time during his presentation to his colleagues did he attest that he had tried to verify the validity of the post, and he did not cite the name of the person alleged to have created it. However, Battie placed a crumpled piece of paper on the overhead projector, so everyone attending the meeting — or watching it via livestreaming — could see it.

The image clearly identified the purported sender as Kelly Franklin, who has been engaged in numerous city issues over the past several years.

Later that day, Alpert reopened that item of business on the agenda, citing new information. Franklin had emailed her and the other commissioners, Alpert explained, to assert that Franklin had not created the image Battie had produced during his remarks.

Alpert added, “It was a mash-up between two different posts [Franklin] did,” as Franklin had pointed out in the email. “I forget that there are ways that people can do that nowadays,” Alpert continued. “They can change photos. … I believe [Franklin] that she didn’t do that and didn’t post that, which I’m happy about.”

This is a post on Kelly Franklin’s Facebook page from Dec. 26, 2022.

In response to Alpert’s comments, Battie referenced the process through which he had received the image, adding, “I’m not saying that [the image is] true or that it’s fact, but this is what it is. Now it’s up to them to prove whether it’s true or not.”

Yet, former City Commissioner Eileen Normile — one of several people who had signed up to address Battie’s morning presentation — told the board members that that they had “reached a new low” with that agenda item.

“Racism is horrific,” Normile added. Nonetheless, she stressed to Battie, “You don’t have to be a former prosecutor, as I am, to see from a distance that your evidence is almost juvenile in its creation. … With this piece of rubbish, which anyone who is 5 years old can see is fabricated, you dragged someone’s good name through the mud …”

On Jan. 19, attorney Richard A. Harrison, whose eponymous firm is located in Tampa, notified Mayor Alpert, City Manager Marlon Brown and City Attorney Robert Fournier that Franklin had retained him “to represent her interests in connection with the deliberate, calculated, intentional, unjustified, and unprecedented public personal attack launched upon her by Commissioner Kyle Battie [during the Jan. 16 meeting].”

Harrison continued, “We will be instituting appropriate legal action on behalf of Ms. Franklin against Commissioner Battie in due course.”
While Harrison added that he and his client “do not presently anticipate bringing any legal action against the City based on these events [Harrison’s emphasis],” he wrote that Franklin “demands that the City immediately conduct a complete and thorough investigation of this matter and document and [report] findings publicly. Among other things, it seems apparent that Commissioner Battie misused city assets and resources to pursue a purely personal attack against Ms. Franklin for some as of yet unidentified personal or political benefit to himself.”

Harrison noted that Battie “apparently told nobody in the administration about the details of the matter or his intentions to attack my client publicly; and he made no inquiry of Ms. Franklin concerning the alleged Facebook post. In short, in a cold and calculated manner, Commissioner Battie planned and plotted every step so as to ensure that his very public attack on Ms. Franklin would come as a complete surprise to the City Commission, the administration, the meeting audience, the public at large, and Ms. Franklin.

Attorney Richard A. Harrison. Image from his law practice website

“In that regard,” Harrison continued, “please advise if the City has its own Code of Ethics and a complaint procedure for ethics matters. If so, we intend to file a complaint.”

“Finally,” Harrison wrote, “we expect and anticipate that the City will take appropriate steps to preserve all records and documents that in any way relate to this matter.” He added that the city is “on actual notice of a potential legal claim arising out of these matters and as to which it almost certainly possesses relevant documents and information.”

In a press release accompanying that document, Franklin said, “How in the world can it ever be appropriate for an elected official to use his public forum and the resources of the government as a bully pulpit to attack a private citizen?”

The release emphasized that Franklin was not pursuing legal recourse with hope of a monetary award. “I’ll probably never see a dime from Kyle Battie,” the release further quoted her. “But he must be held accountable for this completely baseless attack on my good name and reputation.”

‘Gorillas in the midst …’

At the outset of his Jan. 16 remarks, Battie told his colleagues, “Give me a little latitude with this, because there’s a picture that needs to be painted due to something that was brought to my attention that I hope is totally and completely not true.”

He noted the fact that when he lived in New York City, people occasionally would surprise him by talking about having been to Sarasota. On occasions, Battie continued, they would tell him that Sarasota was “one of the most segregated places” they ever had visited. “That made no sense to me,” he said, “because it wasn’t the place that I grew up in.”

Having recounted other anecdotes related to racism, Battie finally put the alleged Facebook post on the overhead projector in the Commission Chambers, explaining that the photo was taken during the Sept. 8, 2023 grand opening of the Corona Cigar Co., which is located at 22 N. Lemon Ave. in downtown Sarasota. (The ribbon-cutting ceremony occurred while he was still mayor.)

The woman next to him in the photo, he continued, was Tanya Borysiewicz, co-owner of the business. She is half African American and half Scottish, Battie added. “And this here is equating me and her to a primate, a gorilla, an ape, a monkey. … This is on a social media page.”
Addressing his colleagues, Battie emphasized, “We should not be subjected to this. I should not be subjected to this. … This is sick, abhorrent, egregious.”

He asked for the agenda item, Battie explained, to learn the position of each of the other commissioners on that Facebook post.

Commissioner Debbie Trice was the first to respond. “I agree that it’s inappropriate and it’s unfortunate. But, unfortunately,” Trice continued, “I have seen and heard a lot of that in this city. But, as you say, usually not as openly displayed.”

Commissioner Erik Arroyo pointed out, “We need to take a stand and make sure everyone knows that will not be tolerated in this city, that we are an inclusive city and that we are a city that does not prejudice people and that we create opportunities for all. And that type of just vitriol, just that level of hatred, should just not be tolerated anywhere against anyone, honestly.”

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch responded, “I’m completely shocked by what you’ve put in front of us.” However, she added, she knows the individual whose face was shown as the person who wrote the post. Ahearn-Koch said she never would expect that person to take such action.

When Ahearn-Koch asked Battie for details about the image, he replied that it was sent to him. When she asked by whom, he explained that the item was sent to the Corona Cigar Co. and then turned over to him.

Tanya Borysiewicz ended up joining Battie at the podium.

Tanya Borysiewicz addresses the City Commission on Jan. 16 as Commissioner Kyle Battie listens. News Leader image

“That picture was sent to me in an envelope,” she told the commissioners. Her voice breaking, she added that her secretary had crushed the paper and thrown it away. Then her secretary had second thoughts, Borysiewicz continued, and gave her the image.

Borysiewicz added that she does not know the individual whose image was shown as the creator of the Facebook page on which it was posted.

“I have another picture, another primate, and it has a lady’s name. ‘Political drama in Sarasota’ is how it starts off,” Borysiewicz explained. After she tried to learn more about the individual, Borysiewicz continued, she began “seeing what type of person [the Facebook poster is]. I guess she has a lot of beef against the people who work here and own the business.”

(In an October 2023 email to City Attorney Robert Fournier, a copy of which The Sarasota News Leader obtained, Franklin did express a number of concerns in regard to whether the Corona Cigar Co. was abiding by all applicable city regulations.)

When Mayor Alpert asked for clarification that Borysiewicz is an owner of the “Corona Cigar Bar,” Borysiewicz replied, “Yeah.”

This is a still from a YouTube video of the grand opening of the Corona Cigar Co. in downtown Sarasota in September 2023. News Leader image created from the video

Later, Battie told his colleagues, “Everyone should have the right to live in this city and cities abroad without any obstruction, oppression, discrimination, segregation, degradation of any kind, of any sort, of any fashion.”

Addressing Battie, Alpert said, “It was a shock that anyone would post something like that and not realize that that was inappropriate to ever equate somebody who is black to a gorilla. … I mean it just — yeah — it kind of takes your breath away.”

Then Alpert pointed out — again, without naming her — that Franklin is one of the members of CityPAC, “a non-partisan municipal political committee,” as its website explains. It routinely publishes newsletters following City Commission meetings, using a chart with sun and rain symbols to indicate the organization’s position on the overall stances that the individual commissioners took during the meetings.

Alpert added that Franklin’s husband is running for the City Commission seat that Alpert holds. (Ron Kashden is a candidate for the District 2 seat. See the related article in this issue.)

Battie did say later that he had talked to “people in tech,” indicating that he had asked them to take a look at the purported Facebook post, “whether it’s on the page … These things can’t be deleted; people think it can.”

Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch also noted, “Facebook accounts get hacked all the time; emails get hacked all the time. You can take somebody else’s identity and put things out. … I would caution us all to make sure this is actually accurate,” that Franklin “actually did do this.”

Still, Ahearn-Koch stressed, “It is not acceptable to say anything racist or discriminatory to anyone.”

Reopening the discussion

After Mayor Alpert reopened the discussion of the agenda item that afternoon, she called forward several people who had signed up to address the matter.

The very first one, downtown Sarasota resident Jim Lampl, asked Battie what steps he had taken to verify the legitimacy of the post prior to making his comments that morning.

“You have to uphold the highest civility standards,” Lampl told Battie, “not just we who take a pledge to do it [before addressing the commissioners] … I don’t think anybody called Ms. Franklin to see if this was actually a verifiable photo,” Lampl said.

Moreover, Lampl continued, the photo was not in the agenda packet, and the backup materials in the agenda packet about Battie’s item did not mention “the things as onerous as we heard this morning. … We are on really shaky ground, especially when a commissioner represents as true [an item] by putting up a screenshot,” Lampl pointed out, noting that the Photoshop software could be used to create such an image.

Then Kashden, Franklin’s husband, addressed the commissioners, noting that many of them already were aware that Franklin has “a very, very serious illness,” which makes her immune-compromised. Yet, Kashden continued, he and his wife “decided to risk her life to do a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Rwanda,” during the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that she always had wanted to see the gorillas that live in that African country and take photos of them.

(Rwanda is known worldwide for the experiences that visitors can have observing the gorillas.)

The person responsible for the alleged Facebook image “was some sick individual that not only denigrated Commissioner Battie but also ended up denigrating Kelly and her professional career,” Kashden added, pointing out that he already had mentioned to City Manager Marlon Brown and several of the commissioners that he was “going to use whatever resources it takes to hire whatever professionals we need to first hunt down the person that did this, to investigate the information and get to the bottom of this, whether it’s civil or criminal. We will find the answers, and that I can assure you.”

Mayor Liz Alpert. File photo

Following the public remarks, Alpert said she believed that the alleged Facebook post was a mash-up and that she also believes Franklin was not responsible for it.

She felt an apology was due, Alpert told her colleagues.

While agreeing that Franklin deserved an apology, Commissioner Trice said, “I’m afraid what I have heard is a hijacking of this issue. There was a blatant racist attack against Commissioner Battie, and that is totally being ignored by this commission at this point. Everyone is defending Ms. Franklin.

“So, yes, Ms. Franklin deserves an apology,” Trice continued, “but the next time Commissioner Battie gets something like that, he should still bring it to this commission and maybe white-out the source of it or the theoretical source of it. But it is critical that we recognize that this is inappropriate in the city of Sarasota.”

“You’re right. Yes,” Alpert told Trice.

1 thought on “Sarasota resident to pursue legal action against Commissioner Battie over presentation during which he called her racist without apparently having tried to verify authenticity of photo”

  1. The Commission’s actions, and particularly Commissioner Battie’s, has brought the City to a new low. Attacking a community activist who has been a cheerleader for the residents that find themselves without a voice in this City, has me wondering about the intent???
    Quiet naysayers.? A warning to others?

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