The Real Truth About Suzanne Harris

Discussion in 'Local Government and Groups' started by Bob Hudson, Jun 3, 2012.

  1. Bob Hudson

    Bob Hudson Beach Fanatic

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    From interior designer to political activist: The woman behind the fight for Sunshine.

    June 01, 2012 10:47 AM
    Molly Mosher
    The Walton Sun

    It all started with a volleyball net.

    And it was that seemingly unimportant net that now has Walton County in hot water over Florida’s Sunshine Law.

    Since she was approached in 2009 to take down an offending volleyball net on the deeded beach of Edgewater condominiums, Suzanne Harris has brought multiple lawsuits against the county for its leaders’ lack of adherence to Sunshine Law guidelines. The ongoing litigations have earned Harris the Sunshine Week Local Heroes award from the American Society of News Editors, but more importantly, it has raised awareness countywide of how county business is conducted.

    “People have finally figured out that we’re being kept in the dark,” said Harris. “They have to do things in the Sunshine.”

    But though her name is widely recognizable, not many know what drives the woman who has fought for open door dealings in Walton County.

    An iron will

    Harris grew up in Vestavia Hills, Ala., right outside Birmingham as the only child of Billy and Betty Corretti.

    It was her upbringing, and especially her father’s example, that Harris credits for her indomitable work ethic.

    “I’m Italian — I just like to work; I like to be busy,” said Harris, who to this day works 12-plus hours daily as the president of the Edgewater Beach Condominiums Board of Directors, not to mention the extra time she devotes to community activism.

    Harris attended the University of Mississippi after high school, and upon graduating, took a job as a flight attendant for Delta. She accepted the position even though she knew it wouldn’t be popular with her father.

    “He almost had a stroke,” she joked. “Was I headstrong growing up? Oh yeah.”

    After three years traversing the globe, and a stint in Sanibel Island as an interior decorator for model homes, Harris moved back to her native Birmingham.

    She ran into a minor setback there when applying for a job at the design firm of her choice. The person in charge had hesitations about hiring the daughter of one of his well-to-do friends.

    “ ‘He knows that you don’t really have to work,’ ” Harris recalled hearing.

    “I told him, ‘I will work for two months for free,’ ” Harris said, on the condition that if she did well, she would earn a full-time paid position.

    Her response was unconventional, but the company brought her onboard and eventually offered Harris the job.

    She later went on to start her own design business, but true to her character, she had much more on her plate.

    Like mother, like daughter

    If she got her work ethic from her father, it was from her mother she inherited her concern for others.

    A woman who always put others before herself, Betty Corretti imbued her daughter with the same soft spot for the disenfranchised.

    When it came to the rearing of her own son, Harris took a page from her mother’s book.

    “My mother was really involved in everything I did,” said Harris.

    With her son William’s aptitude for sports, Harris was always taking on the role of team mom or group leader. With her involvement in William’s golf, wrestling, and baseball interests and close work with the coaches, Harris was elected as the first woman to the National High School Coaches Association.

    It was through the coaches that Harris, a mother of one, became “Mom” to five at-risk teens throughout her son’s high school years.

    “They would stay with me until they were better,” said Harris of the teenage boys she fostered.

    She would take them in and do her best to help them turn their lives around, and in that she was totally effective, as all five went on to college and to have productive lives.

    Truly his mother’s child, William has an impressive resume. After earning his bachelor’s from Auburn University, he attended law school at the University of Florida, and now is a successful lawyer in Tampa.

    “An education is all you can give your child,” she said.

    Keeping an account

    By 1983, Harris was successful enough to be able to purchase a unit at newly developed Edgewater Beach Condominiums in Miramar Beach. At the time, Harris was still living in Birmingham but would get down to visit as often as possible.

    On one trip, during a visit to a local hairdresser whose husband worked for the power company, Harris was informed that Edgewater was delinquent on its power bill by 90 days.

    So Harris took it upon herself to fix the oversight and make sure it never happened again.

    “We got rid of the board,” she said, adding that there were other examples of mismanagement. “A group of us took over the board in 1984.”

    Harris has been president of the board ever since.

    Under her leadership, Edgewater has become a true success story, and part of that stems from doing everything in-house, including vacation rentals.

    When she proposed the idea, she said the other board members were hesitant, asking, “What does an interior designer from Birmingham know about starting a rental business?”

    The rental program, which started with 10 units, has now grown to 125, and no matter the climate, it always does well.

    “Even during the oil spill, we had a profit of $400,000,” said Harris.

    The business takes the 25 percent that would go to an outside rental agency and directs these funds back to building improvements and personnel. This allows Harris to take care of the most important part of the business — the employees. All employed with Harris receive 100 percent health care coverage, paid bridge tolls and bonuses in times of prosperity.

    “I keep the same people,” said Harris of her satisfied staff. “Some employees have been here 18 years.”

    The roots of activism

    Harris’s interest in politics has roots in her hometown of Vestavia Hills, Ala.

    Living there as an adult in the late ’90s, Harris realized something was amiss in the Vestavia Hills city government. With taxes always going up, she saw nothing to show for it.

    “No one could ever account for where our money went,” said Harris, who said it was later revealed embezzlement was the problem.

    When the time for elections neared, Harris, as part of the local citizens’ group, sought someone right-minded to replace him. She came upon Charles A. “Scotty” McCallum and encouraged him to run.

    After initially declining, he ran the next time around and was elected in 2000. According to Harris, the city flourished under his mayorship.

    “He made the school system one of the best,” said Harris.

    When she moved down to Florida full-time, Harris continued to act as a government watchdog.

    “When I came here, I watched,” said Harris. “I think you have to hold people accountable for what they do.”

    Here comes the sun

    In 2008, Harris was approached by Walton County code enforcement because of a volleyball net on Edgewater’s deeded beach.

    The net, according to the county, was in violation of the “Leave No Trace” program. The program stated items left on the beach overnight were in violation and would be removed by county officials.

    Officials asked Harris to take her net down daily, which was not only inconvenient but impossible.

    “We had that up since 1990,” said Harris. “The posts are 10 feet in the ground. You can’t take that down.”

    Harris found it curious that the county could come to cut down the net even though Edgewater has a deed to the beach.

    So, she put forth a public records request to find out more details about the program in violation. The county could not offer the records because they were not on file.

    “That’s when we found out they didn’t keep public records,” said Harris, alerted to the fact that much of Walton County business was not being done in the “sunshine.”

    Harris, represented by Matt Gaetz of Keefe, Anchors, Gordon & Moyle law firm, brought the commissioners to trial over the public records issue.

    After a nearly nine-month trial process, the Board of County Commissioners signed a settlement in which they agreed to adhere to public records law so as not to face contempt charges. Among other things, the commissioners also agreed to have a designated records management liaison officer and use only official county email for official business.

    And then things snowballed further, leading to the well-known litigation proceedings over a Chat Holley land deal and a storm of criticism from Commission Chairman Scott Brannon. She said the years of legal wrangling could have all been avoided.

    “We just sued them to leave the damn volleyball net up,” said Harris.

    But now transparency is the key issue.

    “It’s okay to make a mistake, you just have to own up to it, and you fix it,” Harris said. “… You just have to have guts enough to choose right from wrong.”
     
  2. shellak

    shellak Beach Fanatic

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    Great profile! Have never met Suzanne but I have a lot of respect for her. Just reading about how she treats her employees tells you a lot about her character.
     
  3. BettyRose

    BettyRose Beach Crab

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    The Truth?

    Hahahaha Im sure Suzanne has enlarged and framed this jewel of an article. Obviously, the author has no clue about who the real Suzanne is. I will laugh at least a year about "the truth" article since it leads the reader to believe she is an upstanding, honest citizen. Hahahahahahaa
     
  4. BettyRose

    BettyRose Beach Crab

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    AND SAYING you have to have the guts to own up from right and wrong????? Hahahahaha you're funny Suzanne.
     
  5. Andy A

    Andy A Beach Fanatic

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    It is no secret that she is not a favorite of mine. Everyone else on the beach adhered to the "leave no trace" ordinance but she chose to sue the county and cost the taxpayers a lot of money. She did what she thought was right and I respect her right to do that but I think it could have been handled in an entirely different manner that would not have cost the rest of us money.
     
  6. Matt J

    Matt J SWGB

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    Andy you forget the special privileges Edgewater got out of the deal too. You know, to keep it "fair".
     
  7. Here4Good

    Here4Good Beach Fanatic

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    I think everyone always misses the point of the story. It's not really about Edgewater's volleyball net; it's about a citizen asking for county records which the county is required by law to keep so that citizens can find out what is going on in the county they pay taxes to run.

    It's about discovering that not only did the county not keep those records, but that elected officials were going to great lengths to conduct county business via private emails and texts so that those messages could not be considered part of the public record.

    It's about taped depositions with the county employees whose job it was to keep those records which would have been laughable, had it not all been happening on our dime.

    It's about a citizen expecting the elected officials to follow the law. They didn't, she sued.
     
  8. j p nettles

    j p nettles Banned

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    I admire anybody who takes on the crooks in Walton County. Obviously it takes means to do so and she seems to have the guts and the money to do it. For all the whiners complaining about the cost of defending lawsuits, if the bastards who call themselves public servants would adhere to the Sunshine Law and other laws, they wouldn't have to defend lawsuits.
     

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