She first came on the scene to defend the City of Mount Dora in the van Gogh mural lawsuit, which claimed the City violated the homeowners’ Constitutional rights. The protracted legal action concluded with a widely foreseen favorable settlement for the homeowners, and a national black eye for the City.
Now that same lawyer, Sherry Sutphen, whom the City Council later contracted to be the City Attorney, stands accused of defaming a volunteer member of the City's Planning & Zoning Commission (P & Z).
The dispute stems from an April 17th P&Z meeting in which the City was applying for a zoning change from “residential” to “mixed use” to accommodate a new parking lot. The all-volunteer commission had never considered that particular type of zoning change request, so member James Homich, appointed by City Councilman Harmon Massey, asked a lot of detailed questions. including many about the potential negative effects on the neighboring properties.
At one point during the meeting, a property owner in attendance commended Homich for his concern and thoughtful questions, stating that no one else from the City had inquired how the zoning change would affect them.
After the lengthy and sometimes tedious discussion, Homich made a motion to deny the rezoning based on negative impact to the surrounding area. The motion was seconded by another volunteer member, Bill Carpenter, but the motion failed to pass.
The rezoning ultimately passed with a 5-2 vote, Homich and Carpenter voting against it.
At the next regular City Council meeting on May 7th, Sutphen made the unusual move to publicly seek Homich’s removal from the P & Z Commission. Typically, the city council member that appoints a particular volunteer will remove or replace them without incident.
It’s unclear why Sutphen chose such a public platform to allege that during the hour-long April 17th P & Z meeting, Homich had acted inappropriately, disloyalty and mistreated the Planning Director among other accusations. Sutphen presented no supporting documentation to the City Council for any of her allegations.
After an exhaustive review of the P & Z meeting’s audio file uncovered no instances of Homich, or any other volunteer, acting unprofessionally, disrespectfully or disloyal. On the audio file, Homich remained professional after being on the receiving end of a slight barb from the city's Planning Director.
Although the topic was not on the City Council meeting’s agenda, Sutphen allegedly contacted council members about her accusations against Homich prior to the council meeting. A few of the council members listened to the complete audio of the P & Z meeting and none of them advised the volunteer of Sutphen’s claims or provided him an opportunity to refute her allegations. The city council voted 6-1 to remove Homich. Councilwoman Laurie Tillet cast the lone vote against it, expressing her opinion that he should have been allowed an opportunity to hear and refute the claims.
After the city council meeting, media outlets, including Mount Dora Buzz, made public records requests to the City of Mount Dora for documents to support Sutphen’s claims, but those requests for information went unfilled.
In a letter to Sutphen dated May 15, Homich maintains all eight of her allegations are provably false, defamatory and were put forth vindictively. He stated that he hopes to resolve the issue without litigation, providing Sutphen issues a public apology and resigns as the City Attorney.
Two City Council members and a resident allegedly publicly and recklessly repeated Sutphen’s alleged falsehoods, so Homich is also seeking their apologies, as well as donations to the Anti-Defamation League from the two Council members.
Sutphen works for Bell & Roper, P.A., the Orlando law firm which the CIty Council engaged after allocating $140,575 for legal fees in the approved 2018-2019 City budget. The law firm’s invoices totalled over $186,800 in the first seven months of the fiscal year, while averaging $26,691.71 per month. If that average continues, the annual amount would exceed $320,000, which is over double the original amount budgeted.
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