Circumventing Florida's public records law, and destroying public documents, has cost Martin County commissioners more than $12 million -- and the toll keeps rising.
The commission on Tuesday agreed to a $12 million payout to Lake Point, a rock quarry company that has plans to become a water company, sued the county for breach of contract and for violating the state's Sunshine Law.
The agreement will put an end to a four-year legal dispute but not the end of the county's woes. A grand jury is investigating allegations that at least one county commissioner destroyed records relating to the case, which could draw criminal penalties.
The county also agreed to buy 300 acres of land from Lake Point, refund environmental surcharge and impact fees, and grant a permit for an onsite cement plan. It also agreed to issue an apology letter.
In the letter, released on Tuesday, the commissioners apologized to Lake Point, "its principals and its employees for the harsh words and inappropriate deed of certain commissioners that unnecessarily tarnished the reputation of Lake Point." It also admitted that it needed "to improve its public records practice" particularly as it related to using private emails for public purposes. Download 17-11-13 Settlement Agreement (All pages) (1)
"We now know that the use of private e-mail accounts by certain County commissioners had become too commonplace, resulting in a lack of the transparency and accountability that the public rightly expects from its government, and that is required by law,'' the letter states. "We have addressed these public records problems through new policy and practices, by which we hope to restore the public’s trust in how Martin County transacts its public affairs."
It's a dramatic admission for a county that spent two years denying the existence of public records, until a court ordered them released, and it is the second settlement agreed to by the commission this year.
A a court-appointed arbitrator in February concluded the county “engaged in a pattern of violating the public records act” in an attempt to shield that they were using private email accounts to communicate with former Martin County Commissioner and environmental advocate Maggy Hurchalla. The court found that “certain commissioners failed to take public records requests seriously.”
The county agreed to pay more than $371,800 in attorneys’ fees at the time, and to establish a new policy for how to handle public business on private email accounts.
The Lake Point venture began as a public-private partnership that would allow Lake Point’s owners to operate a for-profit rockpit to mine and sell aggregate — a mixture of minerals —for construction projects. In exchange, Lake Point would donate the 2,200-acre property to the district, which would use it to divert water from Lake Okeechobee or the C-44 Canal to avoid discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary.
The water on the land, which former owners had used to grow sugarcane, would be treated and then sent south into Florida Bay. Lake Point argued the agreement with the district gave it the right to transport and supply water; the company wanted to sell water to Palm Beach County. Martin County countered that Lake Point was not allowed to conduct a revenue-generating public water-supply project on the property.
The county canceled the contract in late 2012, after Hurchalla urged county commissioners to reject it, claiming it could destroy as much as 60 acres of wetlands. Lake Point countered that Hurchalla’s claims were false, and sought copies of private emails between commissioners and Hurchalla.
Emails discovered in the case revealed that more than one commissioner used personal email accounts to conduct public business, and Lake Point sued.
In March 2016, Hurchalla produced emails that the county had denied existed for two years. They showed that she had been engaged in discussions with former Commissioner Anne Scott and Commissioner Ed Fielding about canceling the contract and appeared to coach Scott to “limit the discussion” and cancel the contract.
The court-appointed arbitrator concluded that County Commissioner Sarah Heard scrubbed information and altered public records, after she claimed her private Yahoo! account was hacked. Now, a grand jury is reviewing those developments.
The county commission voted 4-1 to approve the settlement with only Heard voting no.
County Commissioner Ed Ciampi called it "a dark day in Martin County."
Commission Chair Doug Smith called the need for the settlement "reckless,'' according to TC Palm. "We are borrowing money to dig our way out of a hole," he said, adding that the county could have built two fire stations with the money spent on the settlement.
Heard, however, maintained she had done nothing wrong.
"This is the most alarming proposal I've ever seen put before any board,'' she said, according to TC Palm. "We didn't do anything wrong. This is an unveiled assault on opposition, on criticism. It's meant to vanquish opposition and critics, to muzzle the public and critical public officials."