Learnings from a lawsuit and a text message


I was concerned and perplexed by some of the closing comments made by Board members at the October 20 School Board Work Session on Blue Zones.

Roy Terry said (beginning at 3:01:23 in the video-on-demand recording of the meeting):

I was happy to hear that Mr. Bracci’s suit against Dr. Patton was thrown out. I was also happy to hear that Mr. Bracci’s motion to disqualify Judge Hayes was denied.

In the motion to disqualify the judge, a text between Mr. Lee Dixon and a sitting Board member was included which suggested that Board members were intimidated by Blue Zones advocates.

With respect to Blue Zones, I have been pressured by no one. I have reviewed the issues and made the decision based on what was in the best interest of students, and of the District. That’s all that I’m going to say on that because the implication was there that we were being intimidated by certain folks. The other comment by Mr. Dixon I’m not going to address at this time.

Board Chair Kathleen Curatolo said (beginning at 3:03:46; YouTube clip here) that she, too, was happy to see the suit against the Superintendent dismissed and the follow-up motion denied. And she too referred to a text included in the motion to disqualify the judge, describing it as one in which “a Board member was engaging in insidious derogatory remarks about another School Board member.”

I had no idea what they were talking about, but it sounded serious. And expensive. District Counsel Jonathan Fishbane said lawsuits by Mr. Bracci have cost almost $190,000 in District operating funds to date.

I found the case they were referring to by searching court records on the Clerk of Courts website. Here’s some of what the file for “Steven J. Bracci vs. Kamela Patton, ” case number 11-2015-CA-001486-0001-XX, showed:

  • The lawsuit was filed on August 11, 2015. The Complaint claims that the Superintendent violated Florida’s open meeting (“Sunshine”) laws by participating in Blue Zones Project Steering Committee meetings, and that therefore the Blue Zones Project should not be implemented in CCPS.
  • On August 17, hoping the parties could resolve the matter without going to court, Judge Hugh Hayes appointed J. Dudley Goodlette, Esq., a respected community leader, former State Representative, Hodges University 2014 Humanitarian of the Year and current Chair of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce Board, to mediate the case.
  • On August 20, District in-house counsel Jonathan Fishbane and outside counsel James Fox of Roetzel & Andress moved to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the Superintendent is not subject to the Sunshine law. The hearing of their motion was scheduled by the Court for October 8.
  • On September 15, Bracci petitioned the court to disqualify Fishbane as attorney for the School Board, claiming he was part of a plan to keep information from the public in order to ensure “smooth approval” of the Blue Zones by the Board “without the knowledge, review or dissent of the public.” The court said no. 
  • On October 1, the mediation meeting ordered by the judge was held, but no agreement was reached.
  • On October 8, the District’s move to dismiss the case was heard in court. Judge Hayes ruled against Bracci, agreeing with the District.
  • On October 12, Bracci filed a 22-page lawsuit to disqualify the judge because he “fears that he will not receive a fair trial or hearing … because of the … prejudice or bias of the presiding judge.”
  • On October 14, Bracci’s suit to to disqualify the judge was denied.

With this research, I understood what Roy Terry and Kathleen Curatolo were referring to when they said they were pleased that Bracci’s suit against Dr. Patton was thrown out and that his motion to disqualify Judge Hayes was denied.

As to the text message, Bracci’s lawsuit to disqualify Judge Hayes contained a screenshot of the text to which the Board members referred. On page 12, Bracci described it as follows:

Here is a copy of a public record in the form of a text communication from School Board member Erika Donalds to some of her constituents, in which she describes the intimidation from certain “elite” members of our community who supported the Blue Zones Project.

Erika Donalds: Terry can’t withstand the pressure that the elites put on us over this thing. I saw that coming.
Lee Dixon: I knew it when he seconded the motion.
Lee Dixon: He has no spine.
Lee Dixon: Erika, can you give us an example of that pressure?
Erika Donalds: Weiss for one.
Erika Donalds: I was told I ‘don’t want to get in the way of the people that are behind this.’
Erika Donalds: Not by Weiss but someone connected in Naples.
Erika Donalds: Mayor Sorey emailed me.

Lee Dixon is a candidate for the School Board District 4 seat currently held by Julie Sprague. (See my post School Board elections less than a year away.) As a School Board candidate, his words are particularly revealing and concerning.

More troubling are the words of Erika Donalds. When viewed in the context of Bracci’s suit to disqualify the judge, her use of the word “elites” to describe generous, dedicated, long-serving members of our community suggests an unappreciative, class-based, “us-vs.-them” mindset.

Bracci makes allegations and innuendos in his case about Roy Terry, NCH CEO Allen Weiss, Naples Mayor John Sorey, Rep. Dudley Goodlette, members of the Blue Zones Steering Committee, the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, the United Way, the Immokalee Foundation and the NAACP, as well as “certain government agencies and their representatives including a Collier County commissioner, a School Superintendent (Defendant Patton), the Mayor of Naples, the Collier County Sheriff, the Vice-Mayor of Bonita Springs, and a State Health Department representative.”

If Donalds, Dixon, and their supporters share Bracci’s opinion that a group of community leaders, including the “entire 20th Judicial Circuit,” is biased against them, there is serious cause for alarm.

I believe this group hopes to take over the School Board in next year’s election. Lee Dixon and John Brunner are its candidates. Stay tuned.

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