He is a man on a mission. He is a buster of perceived corruption. He is his own lawyer.
Tom Kelly is mad as hell, and he isn't going to take it anymore. So in January he sued the city of Orlando because ...
Um, because ...
"I went to an attorney and that was his first question," Kelly concedes. "Ultimately it's a political purpose."
Kelly's complaint demanded that the City Council be forced to reconsider a 1998 decision that allowed Lincoln Property to develop a site across South Street from City Hall. The plot -- adjacent to the SunTrust Center -- formerly was approved for a hotel. But Lincoln abandoned the hotel in favor of a 16-story office tower with a 500-car garage and broke ground in April.
Kelly, who lives blocks away from the site, had hoped to stop the project. He argued the city was wrong to approve Lincoln's request to alter the development plan. He said replacement of the hotel with an office building would bring more traffic, and he faulted the developer's use of multiple traffic studies that he says flim-flammed a compliant council. He demanded judicial review of the building permit based on "illegality or palpable abuse of authority," "fraud, corruption [or] gross abuse of discretion."
On June 4 Circuit Judge Bob Wattles tossed out Kelly's motion for rehearing, saying his court had no jurisdiction. Kelly pledges to find a lawyer and appeal.
But the legal arcana of this dispute is just a patina covering Kelly's real motive, which is to assuage hurt feelings. And maybe to avenge an old injustice.
"It was really because I got involved as a citizen, but my argument wasn't taken with any amount of enthusiasm," says Kelly. "We're taught [to] get involved in your local government; democracy doesn't work unless people do. But if you have anything that's the least bit controversial, they'll shove you aside."
Kelly has been researching the SunTrust deal for more than a year (at one point, even working as a freelance writer for this paper; when those involved wouldn't explain themselves, he was given $100 for his research and the article was killed). But perhaps more significantly, Kelly was involved more than a decade ago in a political dust-up over the fate of the city's former Beardall Park, which was consumed by the SunTrust Center. The ghost of that deal colors his perception in the recent case.
Beardall Park was established in 1973 on the northwest corner of South Street and Orange Avenue. The site had hosted the city's first police station, public school and city hall. Then-Mayor Carl Langford had decreed the land would never pass from the public's ownership, so in 1983 when Lincoln Property proposed that the city "swap" Beardall Park in exchange for an out parcel to make way for what would become the SunTrust Center, a citizens' group formed to oppose it. A member of the group -- not Kelly -- took the city to court and lost.
In revisiting the records of that battle, Kelly discovered the city gave away a significant piece of property that had been overlooked when First National Bank had built its original, smaller bank building on the site. A long-forgotten alley on the site had been tax-deeded to the city in 1933. Since part of it was then under the old bank building, the alleyway could have afforded the city greater leverage in negotiations with the developers on the Beardall Park swap. But city officials kept quiet, Kelly insists, and in March 1985, the city secretly gave the alley away. The deal was sealed without a public vote; Lincoln secured the land by paying only the tax due: $2,314.
That long-ago land deal, buried in the minutia of the giant development, convinced Kelly that only supervigilance can keep city officials in line. And so he fights on. Indeed, while the Circuit Court said Kelly's complaint was inappropriately placed with them, the court did steer him toward the Florida Land and Water Adjudicatory Commission. This may not be over yet, though even Kelly himself is unclear about what, exactly, he hopes to accomplish.
But this much is clear. "I'm gonna make a big stink about that alleyway," Kelly proclaims. "I'm going to go to the Orange County Bar."