Friday, August 11, 2006

About That Beach Agenda

"I repeat, cried the Lorax,
I speak for the trees!
I'm busy, I told him.
Shut up, if you please."
-- The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Another bit of business the Santa Rosa Island Authority board conducted this past week, as Derek Pivnick reported the other day, was the SRIA board's decision to streamline its agenda by eliminating the repetitive item of business known as the "monthly report" by the Pensacola Beach Residents & Leaseholders Assn.

The Gulf Breeze News is trying to make something of this. The reality is that there is less there than meets the eye.

The Report Requirement

For at least a dozen years the SRIA has carried "Report from the PBRLA" as a regular item on its monthly agenda. The mists of time have largely obscured the reasons for this, at least insofar as the present generation of beach residents is concerned. What the tradition meant in practice is that once a month before substantive new business was taken up the SRIA, the board chairman would formally call upon a representative of the residents' association to "report" to the board what it was doing.

Maybe this made some sense in the '70's and early '80's, after creation of the Gulf Islands National Seashore when things were a lot simpler on Pensacola Beach. Back then, SRIA chairman Bobo Jones ran the beach like a Medieval fiefdom and the one or two thousand residents worried mostly over where to fish or which bar was the better meeting ground.

The good ol' boys dispensed their favors, the complaisant serfs partied on. At first, everything was ducky, just as the Once-ler found when he first lived on the street where the Lorox once stood.

"Way back in the days when the grass was still green
and the pond was still wet
and the clouds were still clean,
and the song of the Swomee-Swans rang out in space...
one morning, I came to this glorious place.
And I first saw the trees!
The Truffula Trees! The bright-colored tufts of the Truffula Trees!

Mile after mile in the fresh morning breeze.
And under the trees, I saw Brown Bar-ba-loots
frisking about in their Bar-ba-loot suits
as they played in the shade and ate Truffula Fruits.
From the rippulous pond came the comfortable sound
of the Humming-Fish humming while splashing around.
But those trees! Those trees! Those Truffula Trees!
Evolving Relationship

Then came the construction of the original sewer plant in a highly unsuitable location right next to the commercial core; the infamous "rolling option" for development of the east side of the beach, which eventually was assigned to a politically powerful local developer; proto-plans for what, twenty-three years later, would become the Portofino Towers complex; lawsuits filed by Dr. James Morgan and his fellow "SOB's" [Save Our Beach members] to force SRIA and Escambia County compliance with state Comprehensive Plan laws and to slow developers from overwhelming the beachfront; and a host of other controversial isues touching on governmental misconduct, leasehold contracts, controversial tax and assessment proposals, clean water, turtle-friendly lights, environmental protection, and other issues.

By the mid-1990's, the SRIA, as the chief governing body of the island, and the PBRLA as the only entirely voluntary non-profit association of island residential and business leaseholders, found themselves engaged at times on opposite sides in a number of more adversarial proceedings, disputes, controversies, and issues. Among these were matters such as --
  • Heavy-handed application by the county (with concurrence by the SRIA) of eminent domain powers against certain commercial leaseholders like Tiffany's on the Beach;
  • Lax regulatory enforcement of the county's white sand ordinance (illustrated, for example by the mountain of red clay uncovered on the east end of the beach after Hurricane Opal in 1995);
  • Preliminary adoption of a development scheme, with minimal public input, that would have plunked a Cordova-style shopping mall in the middle of Casino Beach;
  • The absence of any ordinance regulating building heights on the beach;
  • ECUA negligence in preventing sewage spills into Santa Rosa Sound;
  • Gross inequities uncovered in assessment of the so-called "SRIA tax" on small- and medium-sized businesses who had insufficient political pull with the Island Authority board members or the county commissioners who appointed them;
  • Favoritism enjoyed by SRIA board members in granting themselves free bridge toll passes
  • SRIA approval of road designs that called for discharging benzine-laden runoff into Little Sabine Bay and Santa Rosa Sound;
  • Revived proposals to aggressively develop nearly 245 acres of county-owned undeveloped property to the east of present-day Portfino Towers;
  • Developer proposals that surfaced numerous times to waive or abolish the residential building cap on Pensacola Beach, similar to the way it was being exceeded on Perdido Key.
  • Pleas for SRIA financial support for the academically outstanding, but financially strapped, beach elementary school.
At the root of many of these issues was the deliberately secretive way the SRIA board made decisions. It habitually engaged in ad hoc decision-making practices which were rarely, if ever, informed by formally-adopted public policies or ordinances. Advance public notice of contemplated agency action was rarely given; and when given it was not always done in a timely manner. Too often, there seemed to be unmistakable signs that SRIA board members pre-determined the outcome through non-public communications which likely violated the Open Meetings law.

As the whole world knows by now, however, in Florida open meetings law violations are difficult to prove and rarely result in meaningful sanctions.

Thanks in part to favorable court rulings in PBRLA-initiated cases, and in part to County Administrator Barry Evans (now retired) and his staff who worked with certain PBRLA members to rationalize many of the SRIA's quasi-zoning and development decisions so they would conform to the County Code, the SRIA board in recent years has gravitated increasingly away from a purely ad hoc system of favoritism toward a more objective, policy-formulating model of decision-making. The residents' association was not the only entity involved, but it had a large hand in bringing that to pass.

Cooperative Relationship

To be sure, there were times when the SRIA and PBRLA organizations cooperated on matters where they saw eye to eye, like hurricane preparedness, free trolley service, island promotion of major festivals, early experimental Soundside and Gulf renourishment and beach protection experiments, dune restoration, sea oat re-planting, etc. etc.

In other times, leaders from the ranks of the PBRLA such as George Eckes, Don Ayres, and Tom Campanella managed to achieve election or appointment to the SRIA board. They spearheaded substantial improvements in public accountability of the SRIA, such as inaugurating SRIA financial accountability systems (Eckes), enhancing life guard and public safety commitments (Ayres), and ensuring broader opportunities for advance public input on major bonded indebtedness and road improvement proposals (Campanella).

But continuing unhappiness over the SRIA'S noblesse oblige style of governance spawned a major effort in the late 1990's and early years of the present century, led by the PBRLA but joined in by other groups as well, to incorporate Pensacola Beach as a self-governing democratic municipality. SRIA board members and several county commissioners worked feverishly behind the scenes to scotch that effort.

While the PBRLA was not successful in securing state legislation that would put the matter to an island-wide vote -- at least it hasn't been successful yet -- a great many residents and business owners still favor the idea. So far as we know, it remains a top priority of the PBRLA.

SRIA Board Make-up

Not all of the burgeoning issues brought about by increased development have put the residents' association in an adversarial relationship with the SRIA. At least, not formally. But another root of the disagreements that have arisen lies in the way SRIA board members are selected.

Five out of the six board seats are filled by county commissioner appointments. Only one of six positions is elected.

It is no secret that this sytem greatly enables an unhealthy politicalization of SRIA decision-making, even now. Certain SRIA board members and/or their commissioner sponsors enjoy political and financial ties to developer and developer-related business interests that can be in direct opposition to the interests of island residents, businesses, and the public at large. Other board members from time to time have voted on matters which directly affect competitors of their own business or their personal interests.

Conflicts of Interest

By no means is it the only one, but one of the more prominent examples occurred just two years ago when a former officer of the PBRLA filed a state ethics complaint against long-time SRIA board Bill Griffith. In April, 2004, the Florida Commission of Ethics ruled(pdf file or html cache here), in its own words --
that BILL GRIFFITH, member of the Santa Rosa Island Authority in Pensacola, may have had prohibited conflicts of interest while simultaneously serving as a member of the Authority and as a compensated member of the board of directors of Baskerville-Donovan, Inc., while the corporation was doing business with the Authority. Griffith also may have violated the voting conflict statute by participating in matters pertaining to the engineering firm and voting to approve payments to it while he served on its board.
The state ethics commission in Florida is widely regarded as a bad joke, of course. As the St. Petersburg Times put it more delicately just a week ago, "The Florida Ethics Commission isn't known for being the toughest watchdog around."

So, it was no surprise when the commission decided against sanctioning Griffith. The board ruling, in effect, can be understood as stating that both Griffith and the SRIA's board lawyer at the time (who apparently was advising Bill Griffith personally as well as representing the board as a whole, which raises even more ethical implications) were ignorant of state ethics laws; therefore "the Commission voted to take no further action on the matter."

Ignorance of law is an excuse -- if you're Bill Griffith. (Around the same time the ethics complaint was being considered, he resigned from his paid board position with Baskerville-Donovan.)


Griffith has been appointed by one or another county commissioner to the SRIA board since 1992. He has served in the same position for nearly fourteen years. Not long ago, when a new county commissioner declined to reappoint him, Griffith arranged to be appointed by another one -- W.D. Childers, who is now imprisoned after being convicted of bribery and other offenses.

McGuire Martin has served almost continuously since 1983 -- 23 years! Originally elected as a residents' representative back in the days of wine and rosewater, as beach demographics were changing he arranged to be appointed by county commissioner Tom Banjanin.

Banjanin is the only county commissioner whose district includes Pensacola Beach. He is widely despised by island residents now, a circumstance whose origins can be traced to explicit promises he gave key Republican Party supporters on the beach during a primary campaign that threatened to be very close. Banjanin promised them quite explicitly that if they worked for him and he won, he would appoint someone new to take Martin's place as an SRIA board member.

Immediately after surviving that reelection scare, Banjanin re-appointed Martin to yet another term -- and has continued to do so every four years since.

It is impossible to believe that in a county as large as Escambia, where the population is nearing 300,000, fully one-third of the predominantly county commissioner-appointed SRIA board effectively has served nearly as long as most English kings in history.

That Uncomfortable Agenda Moment

Once one understands how the relationship between the SRIA and the PBLRA has evolved over the years, it's easier to understand why that monthly agenda "reporting" requirement became an awkward moment for the residents' association, if not for the SRIA board. How does one "report" to a board, or members of a board, with whom you are frequently engaged on opposite sides of court or agency proceedings? How do you "report" that one of your organization's priorities is to see that some among the very members of the SRIA board you are facing should be replaced?

As a consequence, by the time Ray O'Keefe was elected to head the PBRLA in the late 1990's it became routine for representatives of the Pensacola Beach Residents and Leaseholders Association when called upon for a "report" to say, "We have nothing to report." Or, they would single out a few items pertaining to sea oats replanting efforts or upcoming social events and celebrations.

Beach resident association representatives were no more likely to give a candid and full report on all the important matters the organization was engaged in than the SRIA was likely to invite them into a litigation strategy session with SRIA lawyers. In this manner did the customary "PBRLA report" on the SRIA agenda become a pointless exercise.

Griffith's Revenge - Not

The only grounds for surprise over the SRIA's decision to modify the customary permanent agenda might be that Bill Griffith is the one who proposed eliminating the reporting requirement. After all, there was always hope that someone from the PBRLA might slip up and say something that was actually meaningful. Indeed, that very thing happened once or twice when a less experienced representative of the organization was dispatched to make the report. Griffith, certainly, must have been one who enjoyed such moments.

So, why would he promote elimination from the agenda of the PBRLA report? The likely answer is he supposes in some way that this will inconvenience or embarrass the beach residents' association. Just as everyone on the beach is finally climbing to their feet after Hurricane Ivan, he may well figure he has unfinished business with the PBRLA dating from April, 2004.

Of course Griffith may have other reasons for preferring the "Elk's Lodge" or the "Pensacola Beach Yacht Club" or the "Community Church" to be on the permanent agenda, as it would seem from the Gulf Breeze News report. Their members weren't making routine objections each and every SRIA meeting to Griffith's participation in road-widening decisions that meant more business for the corporation he was also serving at the time.

On Pensacola Beach, yachtsmen and members of the Royal Order of Elks are terrific people. Indeed, their membership overlaps with that of the PBRLA. But neither the Elks nor the Yacht Club seeks to represent the general public interest of islanders in matters of beach development, environmental protection, governance, or incorporation.

In the end, the joke is on Bill Griffith. He's relieved the PBRLA of an awkward obligation to "report" to a government agency that has no business demanding it. The PBRLA is a volunatry, non-profit Sec. 501(c)(4) organization that is not beholden to the SRIA any more than the Pensacola Beach Dancing Grannies.

It's meaningless, but if Bill Griffith really wants to do so he can put the Elks Club, the Yacht Club, or even the Community Church on the agenda to deliver a "report." Who cares? For that matter, why not ask the Dancing Grannies to report once a month? It's bound to be more fun for everyone.

Which Agenda?

There is only one way in which the changed agenda might adversely affect the PBRLA. As it happens, that involves a long-simmering issue that directly affects the public's right to know.

Most folk who attend SRIA meetings do not know this, but the "agenda" which is distributed to the public at the entrance door for every SRIA board meeting is a mere skeleton of the actual detailed agenda that is given to every SRIA board member. Only the press -- if a reporter shows up -- and the PBRLA routinely receive a copy of that detailed agenda.

What makes this important, as any number of examples could show, is that the detailed agenda includes staff analyses, letters, budget reports, applications, and other documents intended to back up or refute each proposed action by the SRIA board. In past years, when an issue arose about which leaseholders were concerned, the PBRLA representative present received a copy of the detailed agenda and made sure to share agenda documents with the parties directly concerned with an issue -- or, as happened frequently, their lawyers.

Of course, there is no necessary or logical connection between requiring a "report" from the PBRLA and having access to the detailed agenda. Otherwise, the SRIA agenda also would be demanding a report from the press. But it is important that sufficient copies of the detailed agenda be made available for public perusal and use.

If Bill Griffith should try to stifle that, he may well be inviting a new dispute with island residents. No matter what Griffith's ethics advisors may say this time, that's another one the PBRLA will win.

Now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It's not.

Typos corrected 8-11

1 comment:

bataille2 said...

this kind of mad-dog reiteration of history by someone who only been on the island for a year or so does nothing to advance any cause. your ignorance of fact just provides your enemies w/ammo while mis-informing your buddies. instead of relying on hear-say & innuendo & myth, you might want to do some leg-work & find out the facts.

the squeaking wheel sometimes does get the grease but never out there on the island.

your ignorance of the history of the island would embarrass better fools.