Alfie Oakes announces lawsuits against Collier County, commissioners over mask mandate
Alfie Oakes and his legal team announced plans to file multiple lawsuits against Collier County and the individual commissioners who voted for the mask mandate passed on Tuesday during a gathering at Oakes Farms Seed to Table Market on Saturday, July 25, 2020.
Alex Driehaus, Naples Daily News
Collier County has ended its months-long fight with a high-profile business owner over violations of its mask order at his popular grocery and retail stores.
At a county commission meeting Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to halt its enforcement actions against Oakes Farms and Seed to Table, owned by Alfie Oakes, a local entrepreneur, grower and community activist.
The vote came after the county’s lead attorney, Jeffrey Klatzkow, said pursuing any fines seemed futile, as they have “now been forgiven by the governor.”
A few weeks ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis filed an executive order cancelling all fines tied to COVID-19-related restrictions adopted by local governments on people and businesses.
The order, which took immediate effect, applies to any fines imposed between March 1, 2020, and March 10, 2021.
“Given this executive order by the governor, in essence just pardoning all the mask ordinance violations statewide, it’s my personal opinion that I don’t see any purpose in moving forward with the Oakes matter at this point in time,” Klatzkow told commissioners.
He asked the board to direct the county manager to cease prosecution of any code enforcement cases related to Oakes and his companies — and commissioners agreed to do it without hesitation.
Commissioner Burt Saunders met with the county attorney about the situation Monday, he said, and suggested that Klatzkow bring the conversation to the board so it could take official action on it.
After Klatzkow briefed the commissioners on the situation, Saunders made a motion to dismiss the cases against Oakes.
“There’s nowhere for this to go,” he said.
A second came quickly from Commissioner Bill McDaniel.
In case you missed it: Federal judge tosses out Naples grocer’s lawsuit challenging Collier County’s mask order
The board’s decision came a few months after the county’s code enforcement magistrate Brenda Garretson determined she “lacks jurisdiction” to hear or make any decisions about cases involving violations of the emergency order, complicating matters.
The county asked for a rehearing, in hopes of persuading Garretson to change her mind.
The magistrate had agreed to allow a rehearing, which was scheduled for April 2, but that now has been cancelled.
Alfie Oakes’ legal battle with Collier County
Oakes has publicly called COVID-19 a “hoax,” and staunchly opposed the county’s mask requirement from the get-go.
After several extensions, the county’s mask order, designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, remains in effect. It applies only to residents and businesses in the unincorporated area, outside of city limits.
The current order — a watered down version of the original one — only requires wearing a mask where social distancing is not possible, rather than in most circumstances, while in public places.
At the hearing before the special magistrate many months ago, Oakes’ local attorney Steven Bracci claimed the magistrate only had jurisdiction over local codes and ordinances, not an emergency order — and that state law deemed a violation of an emergency order as a criminal misdemeanor, so the county couldn’t assess a non-criminal penalty, or fines, for it anyway.
Further, the attorney argued that Garretson was powerless in enforcing the mandate because the emergency order made no mention of a special magistrate in its verbiage.
Following Garretson’s ruling in Oakes’ favor, Bracci claimed victory, saying it proved that “the county created an unenforceable emergency mandate,” and therefore, his client couldn’t be punished or fined for not following it — or enforcing it in his stores.
In a motion for reconsideration, Colleen Greene, an assistant county attorney, argued there had been an “error on a ruling of law,” at the hearing, “which was fundamental to the decision of the special magistrate.”
The county’s request for a rehearing was based partly on the argument that commissioners gave the magistrate jurisdiction to hear and take action on violations when they first adopted the mask order back in July, in the same way that she deals with code violations.
In further support of the county’s case, Greene shared information with the judge about a recent state court ruling in favor of the city of St. Augustine, which faced a similar legal challenge of its mask order.
The governor’s executive order, however, had the effect of overriding all of the county’s legal arguments.
Bracci described the county’s motion for a rehearing before the magistrate as “simply a rehash of arguments already made” at the first one, held back in November. He reasoned the special magistrate “correctly ruled as a matter of law that she lacks jurisdiction to enforce the emergency order.”
DeSantis’ latest order relieves Oakes of fines
In issuing the citations against Oakes and his businesses, the county’s code enforcement officers offered two choices: To pay the fines or to contest the violations and ask for a hearing before the special magistrate.
Oakes instead challenged the magistrate’s authority.
After county commissioners agreed to drop the code enforcement actions in their entirety, Oakes said he felt happy. He didn’t seem all that surprised by the decision.
“It would have been a lot of work to try to keep fighting us on this,” he said in a phone interview. “I think they just realized that they were fighting a losing battle and did not want to put more energy into something that wouldn’t work.”
Despite criticism and protests: Oakes Farms does big business with federal government
He applauded DeSantis for his executive order, eliminating the ability to collect such fines, which could have been costly to Oakes.
Three of the issued citations involved Oakes’ popular destination grocery store Seed to Table on Immokalee Road, his latest venture. The other two were against Oakes Farms, his longtime country-style market on Davis Boulevard.
In the Know: Alfie Oakes talks about what it took to get his Seed to Table market open.
In the Know: Alfie Oakes talks about what it took to get his Seed to Table market open. The store tried to quietly debut on Tuesday Dec. 17, 2019 before its official grand opening on Wednesday Dec. 18.
Phil Fernandez, Naples Daily News
The proposed fines associated with the violations totaled more than $1,100.
Even before the governor’s executive order, Oakes said he felt confident he wouldn’t have to pay a dime to the county, despite never following its mask mandate, for his customers or employees.
Oakes and his attorney have argued all along that the board adopted the mask mandate improperly as an order, instead of an ordinance, so it would only require three votes for approval, not a supermajority of four out of five county commissioners, a threshold supporters knew they couldn’t meet.
In a statement Wednesday via email, Bracci said he sees the commission’s decision to no longer pursue fines against Oakes as an admission that the “magistrate lacks jurisdiction” to enforce the mask order, despite the opposing arguments by the county’s attorneys.
Further, he said, it seems to acknowledge that the structure of the order, passed under the leadership of Commissioner Saunders, who sat as its board chairman at the time, was “always an illegitimate circumvention of proper emergency procedure designed to impose a draconian and divisive mandate upon Collier County residents.”
“The magistrate’s lack of enforcement jurisdiction relates directly to the commissioners’ improper method of adoption of the mask order in the first place,” he said.
In reply, Commissioner Saunders said in a phone interview that the board’s decision shouldn’t be seen as an admission of “anything inappropriate in the order itself.”
Rather, he said, it’s strictly a reflection of the governor’s order, which made the county’s mask mandate no longer enforceable.
In a separate, but related matter, a federal judge in January tossed out a lawsuit Oakes brought against the county over its mask order.
The amended complaint included allegations that the mask order and the way the county chose to enforce it trampled on Oakes’ constitutional rights to equal protection, freedom of assembly and reasonable searches and seizures as a business owner — and circumvented state emergency rule-making procedures, causing him harm.
Judge Sheri Polster Chappell dismissed the federal claims outright, finding they failed to pass muster, then threw out the rest of the case.
There are no plans to appeal her decision.
The county’s current mask order is set to expire on April 13. Given the inability to enforce it, Saunders said commissioners are unlikely to extend it again.
“Obviously, we’re not doing that,” he said.