By Rachel Brown Hackney
Last year, after the Nov. 6 General Election, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Frederick P. Mercurio was reassigned to Manatee County, the court’s website indicates.
He had been presiding over two cases related to the May 2016 County Commission vacation of a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road. One is a lawsuit Siesta resident Mike Cosentino filed against the county in June 2016, contending the action violated county regulations. The second, filed in October 2018 by members of the Caflisch family — owners of property on North Beach Road — sought to have two proposed Sarasota County Charter amendments Cosentino had written thrown off the Nov. 6, 2018 ballot. Both amendments were related to the road vacation.
Mercurio declined to have the proposed amendments removed from the ballot, and they passed with overwhelming majorities.
After the election, both Cosentino cases were reassigned to newly elected Circuit Judge Maria Ruhl.
On April 1, Ruhl filed an Order of Disqualification in the Caflisch case, writing that it was “pursuant to the provisions of [Florida Rules of Judicial Administration] 2.330(i).”
That part of the rules says, “Judge’s Initiative — Nothing in this rule limits the judge’s authority to enter an order of disqualification on the judge’s own initiative.”
Following Ruhl’s action, Chief Judge Charles Williams reassigned the Caflisch case to Circuit Judge Andrea McHugh.
In Cosentino’s lawsuit against the county, Ruhl also filed an Order of Disqualification, citing the same Florida Rule of Judicial Administration. She took that action on March 18.
The very same day, Chief Judge Williams reassigned that case to Judge McHugh, too. Thus, McHugh is presiding over all the issues relative to the North Beach Road dispute.
On March 28 — just 10 days after Ruhl filed her first Order of Disqualification — Assistant County Attorney David M. Pearce filed a motion seeking to consolidate the Cosentino cases. He pointed out that the Charter amendments also factor into Cosentino’s lawsuit, thanks to third-party action by intervenors in that case.
Moreover, Pearce wrote, in both cases, Cosentino and the nonprofit corporation Cosentino founded in June 2016 — Reopen Beach Road — “seek to defend the same charter amendments because [Cosentino and Reopen Beach Road] mounted the petition drive that placed both amendments on the November 2018 ballot.”
The Caflisches did not object to his motion, Pearce pointed out, and Cosentino’s attorney neither had objected nor agreed with the motion, as of his filing.
The issue was to be part of a case management hearing that was scheduled for April 1, Pearce noted.
However, court records show that Ruhl did not hear any arguments on the consolidation issue on April 1, having recused herself from the case.
Cosentino’s attorney gets extension for appeal brief
With Circuit Judge Frederick P. Mercurio last year having dismissed the last part of Siesta resident Mike Cosentino’s lawsuit against Sarasota County over the vacation of a segment of North Beach Road, Cosentino appealed the decision to the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.
When SNL checked on the status of that case, it learned that Cosentino’s attorney, Lee R. Rohe of Big Pine Key, did file his initial brief on March 4. Assistant County Attorney David M. Pearce filed an answer for the county on March 25. Then, on April 9, Rohe filed a motion for extension of time to file a reply to the county’s brief. The court granted that on April 10, giving Rohe until May 23.