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Lawsuit filed against city of Marco Island alleges first amendment violation

Local resident Regina Dayton speaks to Marco Island City Council on Jan. 21, 2020.

Two residents filed a lawsuit against the city of Marco Island and City Council Chairperson Erik Brechnitz alleging their first amendment rights were violated. 

Regina L. Dayton and Ray Seward are requesting the 20th Judicial Circuit court enter its judgment compelling a declaratory and injunctive relief, punitive damages against all defendants and award of attorneys' fees to plaintiffs.

On Jan. 21, both residents slammed councilor Larry Honig during a council meeting after a Naples Daily News report revealed he admitted to be the only person providing content to marcopolitics.com, a website targeting council candidates as well as current and former city councilors.

Brechnitz interrupted Dayton on several instances during her time at the podium.

"My comments are not meant to be in opposition to a person but in support for what is right," Dayton said. "I once voted for Mr. Honig, and there is no denying his intellect nor the hours he devotes to city issues but this is a different matter."

Brechnitz interrupted Dayton's prepared speech.

"Mrs. Dayton, if it's not going to be about a specific councilor please do not name any councilors," Brechnitz said. "This is about policy issues."

"If this is gonna become an attack on someone … "

Chairperson of the Marco Island City Council, Erik Brechnitz, requested a motion to approve the 2019-2020 city budget on Sept. 16, 2019.

More:Marco residents, councilor speak up about Honig during City Council meeting

Dayton did not let Brechnitz finish the sentence.

"Oh no, sir," Dayton said. "And I think that if you let me finish you'll see that's my intent too."

Dayton continued.

"Clearly, Mr. Honig in his written response to the FEC now admits that he alone wrote the content of the website marcopolitics, which many Marco Islanders found repulsive after repeatedly denying this."

Brechnitz interrupted Dayton again.

"Mrs. Dayton, this sounds like an attack to me," Brechnitz said.

In response, Dayton said it was not meant as an attack.

"It's what it sounds like," Brechnitz said. "I don’t want you to attack any personal councilor up here. Let’s not make it personal."

Dayton then continued uninterrupted for the rest of her speech.

"I was going to ask [...] that all of you consider a vote of no confidence for Mr. Honig because I wanted you to be the collective consciousness of our community," Dayton said. 

After her turn at the podium, Dayton spoke with the Eagle about her exchange with Brechnitz.

"I never anticipated that response from Brechnitz," Dayton said. "If Mr. Honig's statements were considered freedom of speech, this should have been as well."

Local resident Ray Seward speaks to Marco Island City Council on Jan. 21, 2020.

Seward also spoke about Honig that night without specifically saying his name.

"I’m not here to attack anyone but I was attacked by one individual on this council," Seward said. "I was slandered and I was lied to." 

"I feel I should have the right to confront that individual in public."

After a back and forth with Brechnitz, Seward said the individual should expect a letter from his attorney. He later told the Eagle that the individual he was referring to was Honig.

Dayton told the Eagle on April 22 she was personally hurt after the incident with Brechnitz.

"Both of us were personally hurt. We were shocked. We were embarrassed, but that wasn't our issue," she said. "That's done, there is nothing that can take that away."

"But when citizens in our community want to stand before their elected officials and speak the truth and (are) told to sit down and are censored, that's wrong."

Dayton said the purpose of the lawsuit, filed April 3, is to prevent other residents from going through a similar experience. 

"What's important to me about filing this lawsuit is to ensure [...] that in the future, when others wish to speak to their elected officials, they are given that opportunity," she said.

Dayton also said the lawsuit could have been avoided.

"The hope was that chair Brechnitz would make an outreach to Ray and I and say 'my intentions were well founded [...] but it was wrong,' and we would have moved forward," Dayton said. 

"There wouldn't have been no lawsuit."

Dayton was allowed by Brechnitz to "say nearly everything she wanted to say, except naming me in her baseless personal attacks," according to Honig. 

"Bear in mind, this is the same person who constantly files self-serving complaints against city staff and other councilors," Honig wrote April 22. "Taxpayers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct payments as well as legal fees — and her complaints are always dismissed as frivolous."

On March 27, 2019, the Federal Election Commission notified Dayton that the complaint she filed against Honig alleging his website violated Florida's election laws was 'legally insufficient.'

"The redlined editorial contained political analysis, fact-checking, opinion, and name-calling," wrote Tim Vaccaro, the commission's executive director. "However, in my opinion, it did not include anything that would amount to more than free political speech."

"The complaint appears to be based upon hearsay," Vaccaro wrote.

This is not Dayton's first complaint or lawsuit against the city or its councilors.

In 2019, the Florida Bar dismissed Dayton's complaints filed against Councilor Jared Grifoni and City Attorney Alan Gabriel over their conduct in the handling of battery allegations against former City Manager Lee Niblock.

In two separate letters to Dayton, Bar counsel Teresa Goodson wrote that there was insufficient evidence to prove either man had committed any violations of rules governing attorney conduct. 

In 2014, the city paid $150,000 to Dayton and her husband Timothy J. Dayton as part of a pair of settlement agreements which concluded their long-standing dispute over the city building department’s inspection of the couple’s home as it was being constructed.

It was a squabble that found the Daytons seeking redress through a Collier County Circuit Court lawsuit and multiple administrative complaints filed with the Florida Department of Building and Professional Regulation against the city and its inspectors.

“As far as we’re concerned, this is behind us,” said Dayton of the quest she and her husband began in 2007, when they filed the first of their multiple DBPR complaints against Marco and its building officials.

City Manager Mike McNees responded to the Eagle's request for comment but asked that further questions be directed to Alan Gabriel, city attorney.

"I won’t have anything to say about the lawsuit while it’s ongoing, something that would hold true for any such suit," McNees wrote April 22.   

Brechnitz did not respond to a request for comment.

Additional reporting by Naples Daily News reporter Devan Patel and correspondent Don Manley.

Omar Rodríguez Ortiz is a community reporter for Naples Daily News and Marco Eagle. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram as @Omar_fromPR, and on Facebook. Support his work by subscribing to Naples Daily News.