A divided county commission took steps last week to create a local RESTORE Act council, and to reject taking part in a consortium of 23 Florida counties bordering the Gulf of Mexico.
Following the 3-2 vote, Commissioner Smokey Parrish asked to be relieved of his duties dating back to the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, when he acted as liaison to BP and federal and state authorities. He will be succeeded in his role as liaison by the seated chairman of the county commission.
“It sounded like the board had no confidence in what I’ve been doing the last three years,” said Parrish afterwards. “I figured it was time for me to step aside and let someone else take a shot.”
At the Oct. 16 meeting, commissioners voted 3-2 to establish a new RESTORE Act Council, based on an outline distributed by Chairman Pinki Jackel consisting of a one-page summary of the council’s purpose and function, and a six-page ordinance defining it, modeled on one passed by Wakulla County.
Jackel pushed for immediate approval of creating the council, saying urgency for it arose from discussions conducted Oct. 11 at a meeting in Apalachicola called by Cong. Steve Southerland. Commissioners Noah Lockley and Parrish were the lone no votes.
“One of the things that came out of the Southerland meeting is that we need to form a RESTORE Act Council,” she said. “Some of the other counties have already formed them. Congressman Southerland said there is not an allocation formula attached to the bill. It’s going to be on a request basis.”
Under Jackel’s proposal, the council would comprise four at-large members appointed by the county commission; a representative of Apalachicola and Carrabelle to be chosen by their respective city commissions; one representative each from the Tourist Development Council, Weems Memorial Hospital board, Franklin County School Board, Franklin County Seafood Workers Association and Franklin County Seafood Dealers Association; and one representative each from Alligator Point, Lanark Village, St. George Island and Eastpoint, each to be “recommended to the board by the District Commissioner.”
Under these terms, the commissioners for Districts 1 and 2, Jackel and Sanders, will each recommend two members of the 15-member board.
Jackel said the council would only sift through and analyze projects proposed for funding, with county commissioners having the ultimate say-so.
Putnal expressed concern with the council’s diverse make-up. “You’re putting this committee together to tell us how we’re going to spend this money,” he said. “You take five or six of these people, a majority, that say we don’t want to spend that money in the bay we want to spend it somewhere else. I was under the impression the next pot of money would be for restoring our bay, not for everybody that wants some of it.”
Commissioners Cheryl Sanders and Jackel said the health and restoration of the bay was, has been and is the county’s top priority, and that commissioners would have the final say in how RESTORE money was spent.
“If we don’t form a council, this board is going to have to accept all the applications. We’re going to have to accept all the projects,” Jackel said. “We’re going to have to vet all the projects that come forward. This council will stand between us and the community and be an arm of this board to vet applications and to make sure that the system is transparent.
“I believe the community would rather see folks of diverse backgrounds,” she said. “This is a community effort. This is not a time for us to divide the county up. The county needs to spread its resources and allocate wisely.”
In her comments, Sanders addressed the recent push by the county’s two municipalities to create a council divided equally between representatives of the two city commissions, and the unincorporated areas of the county, represented by county commissioners.
“Over the last few weeks the city of Apalachicola is asking or telling us that they want to be a part of this RESTORE. This way, the cities of Carrabelle and Apalachicola would be there,” Sanders said, ticking off a list of the many other interests also represented.
“I think it pretty much covers it. I don’t know of anybody else,” she said.
Lockley said he supported the overall concept, but asked for more time to review the plan “to make sure we ain’t leaving nobody out. I don’t see any business people.”
Jackel said business people could fill the at-large posts or come forward from the communities.
Director of Administrative Services Alan Pierce said federal law requires some money be spent on projects other than bay restoration. “That’s one reason we have to have a council,” he said.
Lockley pointed out Parrish had said bay restoration funding would come from the state pot of money, not the county funding. “What we need is a better understanding of what can be spent where,” he said.
“It’s as clear as mud,” Jackel said. “One thing I know we need to move forward with establishing this council. Other counties have done that. They already have their criteria posted; they have their application process going. I don’t want us to be slow on the uptake on this. If we table this, we’ll be by the end of the year getting this together.”
Jackel said the Wakulla County ordinance could be changed as needed. She said the cities and the respective boards would choose their representatives, and county commissioners would choose the at-large and the other representatives. Council members will submit a financial disclosure “as the ethics commission requires.”
Sanders moved to form the council, and Putnal seconded it, after Eastpoint resident Ricky Banks and Alligator Point resident Alan Feiffer spoke in support. Feiffer asked that a public meeting be held before the council is formed.
Jackel gave Pierce a copy of the application to serve on the board and asked that he bring back recommendations to the Nov. 20 meeting.
At this point, Parrish asked to be replaced on all oil spill matters other than the Governor’s Commission on Oil Spill Response.
In an interview Tuesday, Parrish said he was disappointed the council proposal was presented and passed without a public workshop, or any prior input from the other commissioners. He also said he felt the council appeared to be weighted to the east end of the county, and while it was good to include the oyster industry, there was no accommodation made for the other fisheries.
“What about these other industries? There’s no representation on that. This was set up by one commissioner, that’s my problem with it. There was no input from the board whatsoever. We operate as a board, supposedly,” he said. “The resolution actually come from Wakulla County. Franklin is supposed to be so good and so great but we have to adopt a resolution from another county?”
He said he would have preferred to see the matter handled after the upcoming general election, when at least one, and perhaps two, new commissioners may be sworn in. “There is no money yet, so what is the hurry?” he said.
Commissioners question consortium’s structure
Parrish said the more urgent item was to decide whether Franklin would join the Gulf Consortium, a joint public entity formed by interlocal agreement among 22 of the 23 Florida county governments bordering the Gulf. Each member county is entitled to appoint one member on the consortium’s board of directors.
The consortium would oversee distribution of the 35 percent portion of RESTORE Act funds awarded directly to impacted counties, money that can be spent on environmental projects, job creation and training, flood protection, tourism promotion and infrastructure such as ports.
Unlike the other Gulf states’ plans, in Florida, three-quarters of the county money will go directly to the eight impacted counties, including Franklin, with 25 percent divided among all other Florida counties. The eight directly impacted counties have been ranked by the Florida Association of Counties and funds to be awarded based on a formula factoring such things as amount of damage, population and length of coastline. Escambia would receive 26.94 percent of funds, Okaloosa 15.57, Bay 15.43, Walton 13.86, Santa Rosa 10.25, Franklin 7.93, Gulf 6.02 and Wakulla 4 percent.
“I think we are the only county that has not signed the interlocal agreement,” Parrish said. “I think that’s what we need to do. Without a seat at the table we won’t have a voice there to recommend and to quantify why we’re submitting a project. I’d like to have the board’s support to do that.”
Parrish said the other seven Panhandle counties agreed money to repair damage to fisheries should come from a separate pot of money to be allocated by the state, leaving funds coming directly to the county available for other projects.
“I have commitment from seven counties in Panhandle,” said Parrish. “That they will vote with us as far as any problem we have with our fisheries to get that money out of that state pot, not out of our local money.”
Parrish said of the fees associated with the consortium, Franklin County would have to contribute $3,800 to participate through Dec. 1. The money would be used to hire an executive director and an attorney and maintain an office in Tallahassee, he said.
He described the investment as miniscule compared to the potential benefits for the county, noting that if the county decided they were not happy with actions of the consortium, they could withdraw within 30 days of joining.
Sanders, who attended a recent FAC meeting with Jackel, raised questions about the consortium.
“Little did we know we were expected to vote on a RESTORE Act measure,” she said. “I think we have to discuss this before we do any motions. There’s more to the story than just this.”
Sanders said when she and Jackel tried to ask questions about the consortium, they were rebuffed.
“One of the lobbyists did not like myself and Ms. Jackel’s objections,” she said. “He’s supposed to be representing us. He used some very awful terms. When he said what he did to me and Commissioner Jackel, he stepped over the line. That made me wonder what is this all up to.”
Sanders said cost of maintaining staff and an office for the consortium in Tallahassee could amount to $200,000 over a year. She expressed concern that large south Florida counties would seize control of RESTORE funds. “As it reads in these papers, there will be a board made up of five people from these 23 counties,” she said. “That tells me that somebody won’t have a seat at the table.”
Parrish said that creation of a consortium was mandated by law in Florida.
“With regards to the consortium, we can sit back and the state will come in and set up a consortium and who knows who will be a part of that governing body?” he said. “As most of the money comes to the counties here in Florida, we (FAC) wanted to be in control of the consortium.”
Sanders replied that “it may be that we will not have a seat at this table but we’re going to have a seat. I thought this was a democracy where you can ask questions but apparently not. To want to be part of this group just because they want us on it, I don’t get it. We ain’t got but one time to get this right.”
“I do appreciate the work that Commissioner Parrish has done,” said Sanders. “But I was blindsided when I went down south. I have never been so disrespected in all my life.”
Jackel supported Sanders’ objections. “These are big decisions,” she said. “I have lost some sleep over it; I’m sure I’ll lose some more.”
She agreed she and Sanders were treated with disrespect at the FAC meeting. “The Florida Association of Counties has done a good job for the state and for the counties,” Jackel said. “But, their representation for the entire state of Florida sometimes overreaches what their intentions should be for some of the smaller counties.
“I’ve read the RESTORE Act,” she said. “I studied it this weekend. There are two groups of counties; the eight affected counties and impacted counties. The consortia is to be formed of the affected counties, not the impacted counties. The letter of the law in the act says ‘affected counties.’”
She said that while the act calls for the creation of a consortium, it does not state who should be seated on the board. Jackel warned against making snap decisions,
“There is a giant question mark about what else may be wrong with the bay,” she said. “When you join a club, the club doesn’t have a lot of obligation to you to change their rules once you’re a member. I think there is a bigger drawing board and a bigger plan when it comes to the consortium.”
Jackel suggested the county form its own alliance with its immediate neighbors. She said the FAC had presented a false deadline for the formation of the consortium and offered veiled threats the state would seize RESTORE Act funds. She said she was concerned with the lack of detail concerning the make-up and power of the Gulf Consortium.
Lockley moved to support Parrish’s recommendation to join the consortium, but Lockley’s motion died for lack of a second.
“This is a whole bunch of material and I need to go over something before I make a decision because I’m hearing two different things,” Putnal said. “If we’re running out of time I’m sorry. Having to make a decision within five minutes, it’s not fair to me.”
Parrish said Monday that he believed the county’s actions were headed in the wrong direction.
“I think we made a grave mistake,” he said. “The overall point I’m trying to make is when you start all this squabbling, I think it’s going to lead to a break up.”
“Over a period of time, you develop relationships, and build them over a period of time. As far as I’m concerned it’s all for naught. Everything is accomplished with relationships. If you don’t know the people you’re dealing with, it’s hard to build consensus.”
Parrish also took issue with questions regarding the consortium’s distribution formula, and said he felt it was fair given the fact that Escambia and other counties to the west are still dealing with oil spill issues.
“Do I think Franklin County deserves as much as a county that’s been impacted to that extent? I don’t see it,” he said. “I thought $66 million for a few tar balls is pretty good for Franklin County.”/