County commissioners last week duked it out with Franklin's Promise Coalition, the social welfare umbrella organization working closely with the emergency management office in the aftermath of the Lime Rock Road fire.
In the end, they severed their ties, ending a decade-long partnership in which Franklin's Promise served as the ESF-15 (Emergency Support Function) organization, providing volunteer help in the event of tropical storms, hurricanes and other more common disasters.
The fight was neither about whether Franklin's Promise had mishandled any of the money brought in over the last 10 weeks through donations to fire victims, nor whether it had botched its role in managing the massive inflow of contributed items to help these families.
Nor was it over how the money would be spent; the commissioners voiced no problems with how Franklin's Promise had so far disbursed about $37,000 of the nearly $290,000 in financial donations that flowed in as of Aug. 14, two days before the commissioners met in special session.
Franklin's Promise reported this money thus far has gone to buy and install 30 electrical poles, to cover sewer impact fees for replacing and abating septic systems, to set up the temporary travel trailers, and to go towards the Back-to-School Bash and other outreaches to the fire's affected children.
In his report to commissioners Tuesday morning, County Attorney Michael Shuler said the county's auditor confirmed Franklin's Promise's books appeared to be in order.
"Otherwise, they are complying with their disclosures and reporting requirements," Shuler said. "The accountant is satisfied with the information he has received. He'll need some additional information he is going to need to complete the audit required by the county.
"They're working well to conform," he said. "I do not think litigation will be necessary."
This fight boiled down to Franklin's Promise's unwillingness to sign a contract to serve as the county's ESF-15, a job it has done for the past decade, through tropical storms and hurricanes, although without a finely tuned formal agreement such as County Attorney Michael Shuler presented it last month.
In part due to vacation schedules, work commitments, and differences over the contract's terms. Franklin's Promise's board did not meet until Aug. 14, and at that meeting voted to resign from their role as the ESF-15.
"We are unable to agree with the entirety of the document," wrote Tamara Allen, chair of the Franklin Promise board.
She wrote the board offered to provide "alternate language and procedures" that, if approved by the county, would enable Franklin's Promise to continue as the ESF-15 agency, a role that extends to the emergency management office's unmet needs committee, and as its long-term recovery organization.
Allen, who has chaired the county's unmet needs committee for the past eight years, reiterated Franklin Promise's position in her appearance at the August 16 special meeting, a day after sharing the organization's resignation letter.
"We have every cancelled check, every receipt for anything that was purchased," she said. "We've made very few expenditures out of these funds and they're all very well documented in our book."
She outlined how Franklin's Promise had handled "an amazing amount of things, furniture and household goods," filling the temporary travel trailers, purchased by the Tallahassee-based Capital Area Community Action Agency, full of needed items.
"They have actually come to the center and picked out their furniture," she said.
Some beefs voiced by residents
A few people stepped forward during the public comment section of the meeting to voice complaints, but there was no rousing chorus of outrage.
Bobby Johnson, from Apalachicola, said he emailed commissioners June 26 with concerns about Franklin's Promise as ESF-15, but did not detail them during the three-minutes of time each public speaker was allotted, as per a new set of commission rules.
He said he has pressed Franklin's Promise for details of its financials. "I've gotten nothing from them except for IRS documents," he said. "I called the EOC and was hung up on and heard nothing.
"Take them to court and get this public because you guys are responsible for this," Johnson said, in calling for a complete audit.
Carla Lewis, from Carrabelle, said she donated $2,000 to the relief effort. "I haven't received a receipt of payment from the organization," she said. "I'm a concerned consumer. I also want to see how the money is being spent."
Teresa Howard, whose brother's property was completely destroyed in the fire, said "we appreciate everything that was done for him. Being able to get back on his feet means a whole lot."
She said her brother was advised to go to the storage site at the Carrabelle Municipal Complex, and that their treatment there was not as they had hoped.
"Everything has to go through Mr. Taylor," she was told. "The channels there were very inconsiderate and unprofessional."
Howard said Taylor personally made the delivery a day or two later. "Earl was very upset and he was too sick to come," she said.
Stacy Herrington recounted how as a contracted employee of the school district she was able to clock out and come by the ravaged neighborhoods after the fire.
"I saw a lot of the goodness in Franklin County the morning after. I saw people pulling together and I saw amazing things," she said.
Herrington shared some conflicts she had had with school officials and those with the emergency management office. She relayed an incident with Joe Taylor, Franklin's Promise director, after she pressed them to make a particular expenditure on behalf of a fire victim, but did not go into details.
"'Who do you think you are asking me about money?' Joe Taylor screamed at me," she said. "I don't think the actions I saw represented all of Franklin's Promise. I don't think the info was gotten to you, I think there has to be a hearing so the truth can come out."
Franklin's Promise defends its actions
Taylor did not attend the special meeting. As fulltime director of the organization, he has an enormous hand in its entire operation, his name synonymous with Franklin's Promise, as he was instrumental in transforming it from a loose, all-volunteer collection of area social service groups into one in which, in its IRS documentation for the 2016-17 fiscal year, had revenues of about $760,000, and expenses of $529,000.
Salaries and compensation totaled about $152,000, according to the IRS filing, but the breakdown as to how many people received these funds and who they were is not stated. In an interview outside of the public meeting, Allen said Taylor makes $60,000 annually.
"We have never taken administrative funds or salaries from any disaster donations," Allen wrote, in Franklin Promise's resignation letter. "Our all-volunteer board has been focusing our volunteer hours on helping the people affected by this fire, making donations ourselves and thanking others for their donations."
Members of the Franklin's Promise board include Beth Brinkley, from Resort Vacation Properties, who is vice-chair; Fran Edwards, from the Ilse Newell Fund for the Performing Arts, who is treasurer; Susan Bassett, from Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices; Nancy Culp, from DISC Village; Ginny Griner, from Weems Memorial Hospital; Shannon Hartsfield, from the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association; Deanna Simmons, from the Florida Department of Health in Gulf and Franklin Counties; Mindy Parker, from Franklin County Head Start, Early Education and Care; and Ed Aguilar, from the Forgotten Coast Fitness and Wellness Center.
The resignation letter concluded by noting Taylor "is not paid out (of) disaster funds (and) also volunteers many hours to ensure the needs are being met."
In an interview Sunday, Allen said part of Franklin's Promise's reasoning in wanting to hold on to the money, while expending every penny on fire victims. Is that "for whatever motivation, (donors) specially didn't want it to go to the county; they wanted to make sure it went to the fire victims.
"Our belief is that the funds were donated to a nonprofit; they were not donated to a county government," she said. "Part of the motivations for this is our belief that some of the large donors deliberately chose to not give it to the county."
During public comment, Apalachicola resident Robin Vreogop asked commissioners to consider postponing taking up the issue of Franklin's Promise's resignation.
"We are in the middle of hurricane season," she said. "Unless we have somebody in the wings to step into this position, I would beg you to consider 'Is this something that could wait until after hurricane season?'"
Rather than postpone, the commissioners decided by unanimous vote to approve Shuler's recommendations. In doing so, they rejected a proposal suggested by Franklin's Promise to have a separate bank account set up within Franklin's Promise's books, in which County Coordinator Michael Moron, Emergency Management Director Pam Brownell and Special Needs Coordinator Jennifer Daniels, and Franklin's Promise's Timothy Keith-Lucas all would be co-signers on checks.
"That way you have complete control of that money," Brownell said.
Commissioners 'disheartened' by what happened
From the outset of his remarks, Parrish stressed "there is no allegation of misappropriated funds or anything else, there is no allegation of that.
"Since Franklin's Promise is the ESF-15, they are under the county umbrella," he said. "They're not Franklin's Promise out there by themselves. Every entity in this county has to be audited, whether it's the sheriff, the hospital, everybody has to conform with audits in a certain way, not your way.
"The people making these donations are expecting the county to have the checks and balances in place," Parrish said. "I feel the people in the county who have donated out of the goodness of their heart expect that.
"That's all we wanted, is the ability to have this auditing done," he said. "Normally Franklin's Promise would not have to do this as a private non-profit organization. The county has not told Franklin's Promise how to spend a dime, there is no allegations of spending money in an improper way. But we have to have accountability."
Commissioner Cheryl Sanders agreed this was a matter of accountability. "I'm real disappointed, that's all I've got to say," she said. It concerns me greatly because the county commission asked for accountability. I don't understand it, I'm sorry but I don't understand it.
"I'm very, very disappointed that we as a community and us as a government, asked for some accountability... (and Franklin's Promise ) feels like they have to pull out. That's a sad sort of affairs in Franklin County," she said.
She noted that at a convention for county commissioners in Orlando, that occurred the days of the fire and its aftermath, "we were bombarded by people all over the state of Florida, asking where can we send the money? People around the state of Florida trusted us, the commissioners, to give it to Franklin's Promise because we know it would be taken care of
"This is why it's such a disappointment because it ain't happened like it's supposed to happen. After 20 years I thought you couldn't surprise me. My heart is sick. Maybe it's good I'm retiring because I can't take this stuff anymore," she said.
"What's up with this? We are responsible, we got to be audited," said Commissioner Noah Lockley. "We're not accusing nobody of nothing but there rules and regulations that we have to go by."
Commissioner Ricky Jones said that he had told people to donate to Franklin's Promise, as per its status as the ESF-15. "At no point in time did anybody tell me that's the wrong thing to be saying. I am really disheartened that a letter was drawn up that they want to back away from the table," he said.
"It's just sad," said Commissioner William Massey.
By unanimous vote commissioners approved Shuler's recommendations that they reject the resignation letter, so as not to imply agreement with its stipulation that the money remain in Franklin's Promise's account, and authorize termination for cause.
The recommendations included possible legal action, but since Franklin's Promise had turned the money over to the county by a Tuesday afternoon deadline, that was not necessary.
Shuler told commissioners Tuesday that he has been in touch with Tim Center, director of Capital Area Community Action. "He has indicated a willingness to act as fiscal agent for the county," he said. "He wants to look at the paperwork for the ESF 15 function. He has not done that, but he's willing to do that with Franklin County.
"I will have a conversation about volunteers as well," said Shuler. "That's also a communcation we need to have in the future."