Taxpayers Got Raw Deal in Lake Point Settlement
Thomas Kenny III Published 2:13 p.m. ET Dec. 28, 2017 | Updated 9:54 a.m. ET Dec. 29, 2017 – TCPALM Article
Commissioner Ed Fielding and former commissioner Anne Scott each face two criminal misdemeanor charges for failure to allow inspection of public records while commissioner Sarah Heard pleaded not guilty Nov. 28, 2017 to a noncriminal infraction related to violating state public records law.
“An avoidable, unnecessary expenditure. That’s how Ed Ciampi, chairman of the Martin County Commission, described the county’s legal settlement totaling an estimated $20 million with the Lake Point rock mining operation in Indiantown.
Avoidable and unnecessary indeed.
The Martin County Taxpayers Association is heartsick to see taxpayer dollars used this way. But we also understand that if not settled, the case could have cost taxpayers even more, as Lake Point reportedly put its financial damages at $66 million.
How did we get here?
In 2013, Lake Point sued Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District, alleging breach of contract regarding its mining operation.
Lake Point later settled with the district. But the initial lawsuit with the county led to another lawsuit, which went against the county for delaying and failing to disclose relevant public records. The records concerned emails from former county commissioner Maggy Hurchalla sent to the private email accounts of current commissioners Ed Fielding and Sarah Heard as well as former commissioner Anne Scott.
In 2016, Ciampi and Harold Jenkins were elected to the commission, along with the reelection of Commissioner Doug Smith, who had voted against litigation with Lake Point amid concerns about the costs the county was incurring in multiple lawsuits.
The situation remains complicated. A grand jury has issued some charges and continues to investigate. Heard will go to trial in February on charges of a non-criminal violation of state public records law. That same month, Lake Point, alleging tortious interference, is scheduled to meet Hurchalla in a civil trial.
Fielding and Scott face a December 2018 trial for criminal misdemeanor charges of failure to turn over public records.
For perspective on the fiscal impact of this settlement, TCPalm examined other ways the county could have used $20 million. Examples included dredging the St. Lucie Inlet twice, funding 10 years of community redevelopment projects or buying enough library books to last the next 200 years.
We would have preferred to see a dispute of this nature resolved in arbitration. Hindsight is always 20/20, but taxpayers expect and deserve much better. Looking forward, we suggest the county adopt or solidify the following safeguards to reduce the risks of costly settlements in future litigation.
Muscular whistle-blower protections: State law appears to offer public employees protection from elected officials when expressing objections about directives that might violate their conscience. We believe the county should pass a strong local ordinance that would further fortify such protections. If a county employee were tasked with arriving at a conclusion he or she believed was contrary to their findings and political in nature, that individual should feel free to step forward without fear of retribution.
Change the climate: Maybe this is naive, but depoliticizing land-use decisions would go a long way in lessening litigation involving the county. Making the process clear and transparent minimizes misinterpretations that could draw legal responses. Clarify county regulations that are duplicative or unnecessarily complex. Proactively manage applicant expectations throughout the often-lengthy review process so delays are not viewed as intentional or agenda-driven.
No private servers or email: All county business should be conducted in public with records readily available to the public.
Mediation before litigation: Mandate independent and impartial arbitration prior to litigation. The county should be neither intimidated by aggressive parties nor enabled to abuse its power to dedicate tax dollars to litigation.
Find the funds: Homeowners, who bear the lion’s share of county costs, should not shoulder the sole cost of lawsuit penalties. Settlement payment should come from sources other than property taxes.
Accountability check: We also would like to see a line item on TRIM notices, which notify property owners of proposed taxes for settlement payments so the public is fully and accurately informed of the ongoing costs. Legal issues must run their respective courses. If abuse is indeed proven, the guilty should no longer be allowed the privilege of public service.
Thomas Kenny III, a Hobe Sound resident, is president of the board of directors of the Martin County Taxpayers Association and a former Martin County Commissioner.