(Florida Keys Keynoter (Marathon, FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 19--A lengthy lawsuit between Monroe County and a past animal-services provider for the Middle Keys has come to a close but the county isn't dropping its legal battle with a Key West accountant.
Wednesday, the County Commission unanimously agreed -- with some members reluctant to do so -- to pay Linda Gottwald, former director of Stand Up For Animals, $45,000.
Assistant County Attorney Christine Limbert-Barrows told commissioners it's a business decision and not an admission of guilt or liability. County Attorney Bob Shillinger views the settlement as a smart move.
"The cost of going to trial would have exceeded the amount we would have been able to recover, given the circumstances," Shillinger said.
A 2010 audit conducted by the county after Gottwald asked for more money to operate alleged she used taxpayer money to buy a sports utility vehicle for herself, in addition to paying for personal entertainment and utility bills. Gottwald was also accused of using Monroe County's money on a planned animal shelter in Traverse City, Mich.
Gottwald has denied wrongdoing. She said she did what the county paid her to do under her contract -- run the Marathon Animal Shelter and be responsible for animal control from around mile marker 17 up to Lower Matecumbe Key.
Gottwald separated Stand Up from the county in August 2010. The same month, then-Monroe County Circuit Court Judge David Audlin froze two of her bank accounts, per county request.
A legal war broke out when Gottwald appealed Audlin's decision and won after the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami ruled the money to be freed up. The county then sued Gottwald, which was followed by a separate motion filed by Gottwald for $69,000 in "attorney's fees and costs incurred" during her fight against the injunction that froze her bank accounts.
Safe Harbor Animal Rescue of the Keys replaced Gottwald's group, also under county contract.
Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, like the other commissioners meeting Wednesday, bemoaned paying Gottwald this time around but feels the settlement was in the county's best interests.
"It was a losing battle and I'm very sorry how it turned out. I still believe the county did the right thing by pursuing this," Carruthers said. "It was a difficult decision but in the long run, it would have cost additional taxpayer money. At the very least, it will help us strengthen our contracts moving forward."
The board also voted to have Paul Mills, a Key West based CPA whom the county hired to audit Gottwald's books, repay $8,000. Carruthers said Mills did "a less than stellar performance on audits." Limbert-Barrows told commissioners Mills reneged on a previous agreement to pay the county $8,000.
Mills is surprised Monroe County is attempting to collect $8,000 from him and told the Keynoter he has no intention of paying. Mills said while he regularly conducted audits on behalf of Stand Up, he did not audit the organization in 2010, the same year the county audited the animal-services provider.
Mills added that he did initially make an offer to the county to get out of a lawsuit but the county withdrew from the deal because Gottwald refused to pay the county, breaking the county's request for a "global agreement" from both parties.
To Gottwald, Wednesday's finality on the issue was bittersweet.
"Hundreds of thousands of dollars were wasted by the county," Gottwald said. The lawsuit "was a tremendous blow to the county and the animals. The litigation was nonstop."
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