Tarpon Springs hires Tampa law firm to investigate dealings with developer

Published Dec. 15|Updated Dec. 16

The Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners has selected the Tampa-based Carlton Fields law firm to investigate the city’s five-year history with a developer proposing apartments along the Anclote River.

The city advertised the job in October after Mayor Costa Vatikiotis found emails showing that city staff began discussing the project with representatives of Morgan Group in 2017. That was three years before the Texas-based developer submitted an application for the project on vacant land east of U.S. 19 in 2020.

At a meeting in October, Commissioner Mike Eisner alleged the emails showed “years of laying the foundation to ruin our city to make money for a few.”

Only Carlton Fields and Waugh Grant PLLC of Orlando responded to the city’s request for a special counsel. The commission voted 4-1 on Monday to select Carlton Fields. Commissioner Jacob Karr voted no, saying the firm is qualified but he does not support an investigation.

Related: Pinellas judges uphold Tarpon Springs’ approval of Anclote River apartments

Carlton Fields shareholder Adam P. Schwartz said the probe could take eight months and cost up to $160,000.

Vatikiotis said Carlton Fields will look at land use and zoning questions around the project and potential “legal malpractice” regarding the city’s communications with the developer.

“I don’t have an issue with the money,” Vatikiotis said. “I recognize it’s a lot of money, but given … the distress that this issue has caused the city, I think it’s worth getting this thing behind us one way or the other.”

The commission approved Morgan Group’s application for 404 apartments in November 2021. The Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs nonprofit sued the city and Morgan Group, alleging the approval violated the city’s comprehensive plan.

Then the March election brought a new majority of commissioners who opposed the project.

The emails presented by Vatikiotis showed that in early 2019, Ed Armstrong, an attorney representing Morgan Group, proposed language for an ordinance to give developers more time to assemble projects. Before the commission approved the ordinance in February 2019, city manager Mark LeCouris, then-city attorney Tom Trask and then-planning director Heather Urwiller did not disclose that Armstrong proposed the language to facilitate the developer’s upcoming project.

Armstrong said in a previous statement that his involvement was “proper and appropriate.”

Trask resigned as city attorney in September, saying he was the target of “baseless public attacks” by commissioners.

While interviewing the two firms last week, Vatikiotis said if the special counsel identifies procedural failures, he expects the firm to recommend policies to prevent it from happening again.

He said if they find something “more actionable” then the city will deal with that too.

“If you find something, fine,” Vatikiotis said. “If you don’t find something, that’s good because many, many people who feel there’s something there are going to be able to say ‘Well at least this thing was studied.’ … I’m hoping that will at least put the matter to rest.”

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After Trask resigned, the city also issued requests for proposals for a city attorney and lawyer to handle litigation.

Three firms responded for the city attorney position, but two withdrew after interviews last week. That left Trinity-based Unice Salzman Jensen, PA, one of two firms that have been providing interim legal services to the city.

Commissioners expressed concern about Andrew Salzman being able to handle representation of the commission, city staff and five city boards along with his other responsibilities, including being city attorney for Gulfport. They voted 4-1 to re-advertise the position to attract more candidates, with Eisner voting no.

The commission voted unanimously to hire Unice Salzman Jensen for litigation services from four candidates. But Karr questioned whether the city charter requires the city to use the same lawyer for city attorney and litigation services.

Commissioners agreed to ask the Florida attorney general for an opinion on the question.