Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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The Buzz 12/7/17

AG Opines on Legal Fees Opinions Division of the Florida Attorney General’s office has rendered an opinion on whether the Escambia Board of County Commissioners should pay for the legal defense of Commissioner Doug Underhill in lawsuits filed by his predecessor Gene Valentino.

The most recent lawsuit asserts that Ray Guillory posted allegedly defamatory material regarding Valentino on Facebook consisting of emails purportedly exchanged between Guillory and Underhill.

Senior Assistant AG Teresa Mussetto wrote that since alleged statements were made before Underhill became a county officer, section 111.07 of the Florida Statutes, “Defense of civil actions against public officers…,” would not, on their face, appear to apply.

Mussetto reviewed the applicability of the common law principle regarding the reimbursement of fees for public officials who successfully defend against unfounded allegations of official misconduct set forth in Thomber v. City of Ft. Walton Beach (Fla. 1990) –the same case Pensacola City Attorney Lysia Bowling used to justify the city’s payment of Mayor Ashton Hayward’s legal fees in his federal bribery probe.

Thomber v. City of Ft. Walton Beach established the acts involved in the lawsuit must purportedly arise from the performance of his official duties. However, a public official is not entitled to taxpayer-funded reimbursement simply because an allegation of misconduct arises in the course of his public duties. The alleged misconduct must also serve a public purpose.

Mussetto wrote the relevant questions are:
•Was the official’s successful defense against the charges undisputed?
•Did the challenged acts arise out of the official’s performance or public duties and serve a public purpose?
•Is the substance of the litigation of interest to the administration of the business of the prospective payor (here, Escambia County)?
•Did the prospective payor (here, Escambia County) authorize the challenged acts?

She concluded that Underhill’s request did not answer any of the questions affirmatively.

Mussetto opined, “Although the Commission must ultimately decide whether it can legally authorize the use of County funds to reimburse the Commissioner for attorney’s fees incurred in his defense against the subject defamation action…, none of the Thomber factors authorizing payment of such fees at taxpayer expense facially appear to be met in this case.”

Sheriff on Warpath On Friday, Dec. 1, State Attorney Bill Eddins notified the Escambia Board of County Commissioners that Sheriff David Morgan had filed a complaint alleging possible Sunshine and Public Records violations.

The sheriff is objecting to the BCC holding a “shade meeting” regarding his appeal of the FY 2018 budget the commissioners approved for his agency and refused to provide him the minutes from the meeting.

The reason the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office reportedly was given for the refusal was the meeting concerned settlement negotiations or strategy sessions related to litigation expenditures.

Gerald Champagne, ECSO general counsel, wrote in the complaint, “We do not see this meeting could possibly have been held for either of these reasons, because there were and are no ‘settlement negotiations’ ongoing, and there do not appear to be any ‘litigation expenses’ because the reply (to the appeal) was handled by in-house counsel.”

Chief Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille requested a response from county within seven days.

School Board All White On Dec. 1, Gov. Rick Scott announced the appointment of Lee Hansen to the Escambia County School Board.

Hansen, 59, is the founder of the Global Corner International Learning Center and a 26-year United States Navy Veteran. She served as the Commanding Officer of Training Squadron Four and was the first woman to Command an Air Wing in the Navy. She received her bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Florida State University and her master’s degree in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh. Hansen is appointed to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Linda Moultrie, for a term beginning Dec. 1, 2017, and ending Nov.20, 2018.

The reaction within the African American community is one of shock and disbelief. The District 3 was created after Elmer Jenkins, the first African American instructor at Pensacola Junior College, and others filed a lawsuit in 1977 that led to the elimination of the area’s at-large voting system. The old system allowed all county residents to vote for all seats on the county commission, city council and school board, which insured that citizens in predominately black areas could never garner enough votes to elect black officials to represent them.

Jenkins was elected in 1986 as the District 3 representative on the Escambia County School Board. He held the position until 2002. An African-American has held the seat for the past 30 years.

Term Limits On Nov. 27, the Education Committee of the School board members Florida Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) unanimously approved a measure that would impose an eight-year term limit on school board members, who now serve four-year terms without limits on running for re-election.

By a 6-2 vote Monday, the panel also adopted another measure that would require all school districts to appoint their superintendents rather than have them elected. Currently, 26 districts, including all of Florida’s major metropolitan areas, appoint their superintendents, while 41 districts, representing largely smaller, more rural counties, elect superintendents. Escambia County has an elected superintendent.

CRC Commissioner Don Gaetz, who does not sit on the Education Committee, told Inweekly he supports the term limits but not mandatory appointment of school superintendents.

“As you know, I was an elected superintendent for two terms in Okaloosa County, but I was the only non-educator in the County’s history ever elected superintendent, so I probably would not have had the credentials to be appointed,” he said. “I was just a business guy and a parent. We tried to step in as the school district was sinking.”

He added, “I’d probably be a little reluctant on the elected superintendent but I’d be strongly in favor of term limits for school board members.”

The 37-member Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years, has the power to place proposed constitutional amendments directly on the 2018 ballot. If amendments clear the committees and are taken up by the full commission, they will need support from 22 of the 37 members to be placed on the November 2018 general-election ballot. The commission has a May 10 deadline for finishing its work.

Any proposals that go on the ballot would need approval from 60 percent of voters to change the Constitution.

Carpenter Creek Celebration Emerald Coastkeeper and Escambia County will host a groundbreaking cleanup event on Saturday, Dec 9, at 9 a.m. at the headwaters of Carpenter Creek, 715 Olive Road.

In April, Escambia County purchased this 8.5-acre property, vital in the effort to restore the Carpenter Creek/Bayou Texar watershed. Emerald Coastkeeper has been working for over a year to restore Carpenter Creek through environmental awareness, initiation of code enforcement violations, and organized cleanups.

Laurie Murphy, the executive director of Emerald Coastkeeper, told Inweekly publisher Rick Outzen on “Pensacola Speaks” on News Talk 1370 WCOA, “It’s absolutely a stunning piece of property. We’re so excited that Grover and his staff decided to purchase this property back in April to protect this watershed, especially with the RESTORE project that he chose. It would be in vain without having this very intricate piece, instrumental in the complete restoration and protection of the watershed.”

The Saturday celebration will have special guest appearances by Escambia County commissioners Grover Robinson and Lumon May and Councilwoman Sherri Myers, all instrumental in the restoration efforts.

“We are looking for active volunteers who would like to help us clean up,” Murphy said. “We’re going to be catering food from the Sake Café. We’re going to provide gloves and trash bags and beverages, and we’re looking for some men and women who don’t mind getting a little dirty or a little wet to get out there and pull out tires and mattresses and tarps and other kinds of garbage.”

If you are interested in volunteering for the cleanup, please contact Murphy at laurie@emeraldcoastkeeper.org.

Two Projects Supported The Pensacola-Escambia County Promotion and Development Commission (PEDC) won the Escambia County Commission’s approval for two projects to be presented to Triumph Gulf Coast for funding. Both projects also have the support of the board of directors of the Greater Pensacola Chamber.

The first grant application is for $8 million for the construction of a new industrial boulevard for the northern Beck’s Lake Road segment of The Bluffs of Northwest Florida, a 6,000+ acre master-planned industrial campus suited for energy-intensive industry. To date, the PEDC has received $8.4 million from the State of Florida for the Bluffs master plan development, site connectivity and infrastructure improvements.

The second is the University of West Florida’s application for $27.5 million to develop programming and facilities to cultivate emerging high-tech industry sectors of cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence and robotics tied to a new UWF Innovation Network. The center piece of the Network will consist of a new Cybersecurity Innovation Center and Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory located on the Pensacola Technology Campus.

The other Triumph Gulf Coast projects supported by the chamber board are the Northwest Center for Dynamic Ocean Technologies to be placed in Warehouse 4 of the Port of Pensacola and the Escambia County School Board Workforce Development Program.

Todd Thomson, the chamber’s vice president of public affairs, explained his board’s vote for the four projects.

“Our focus was will they create good quality jobs or will they train the workforce that we need to fill those jobs,” he told Inweekly.  “If you look at these four that were selected, I think each one of those projects answers those questions, training workforce or creating jobs that are good, high paying jobs that we need here in Escambia County.”

Water Board Cleared On Dec. 1, State Attorney Bill Eddins announced his office had completed its review of a complaint alleging a Sunshine Law violation by members of the board of directors of Fairpoint Regional Water System, Inc.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille determined that Fairpoint is not subject to the Sunshine Law, and therefore no violation occurred. The regional water system was a private, nonprofit entity formed in 1999 by Midway Water System, Inc., Holley-Navarre Water System, Inc. and the City of Gulf Breeze to be a wholesale provider of water in Santa Rosa County.

The complaint alleged that board members Matt Dannheisser, Bien May and Buzz Eddy met to discuss a multimillion dollar bank refinancing program for Fairpoint privately and violated the Sunshine Law.

Marcille found that Fairpoint had not been delegated a governmental function, a key factor in determining whether a private entity is subject to the Sunshine Law. He also reviewed whether if the City of Gulf Breeze’s membership of the utility made Fairpoint obligated to comply.

He wrote, “The Attorney General in Opinion 98-47 concluded that a private nonprofit corporation, whose members included both public and private entities, was not subject to the Sunshine Law.”

Mark Your Calendars On Dec. 11, Escambia County Legislative Delegation will hold at public meeting at 5:30 p.m. to consider local bills, hear presentations from government entities, and take public testimony on proposals for the 2018 Legislative Session. The Escambia County Legislative Delegation consists of Sen. Doug Broxson, Rep. Clay Ingram and Rep. Frank White. The hearing is in Pensacola State College Jean and Paul Performance Studio, 1000 College Blvd. Any member of the public is welcomed to attend.

On Dec. 14, Escambia Board of County Commissioners regular meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. in the Ernie Lee Magaha Government Building, 221 S. Palafox.

On Dec. 14, Pensacola City Council meets at 5:30 p.m. in City Council Chambers at Pensacola City Hall, 222 W. Main St.