County commissioners are scheduled to discuss the independent report on Walton County’s October 2010 purchase of property at the southwest corner of the Chat Holley Road/U.S. 98 intersection.
This is to occur at the Nov. 8 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting, which is to begin at 4 p.m. and take place at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
The report had previously appeared on the agenda for the Oct. 25 BCC meeting, and copies of the 14-page report were made available to the public at that meeting. At the request of, and through a motion by District 1 Commissioner Scott Brannon at that meeting, the agenda item was rescheduled for the Nov. 8 meeting.
Brannon said he had not received a copy of the report until the previous afternoon and had not been able to look at it until approximately 9 or 10 p.m. While emphasizing that in no way was he seeking to change anything in the report or direct the investigation, he commented that a complete list of people furnishing information in the investigation had not been provided to the commissioners. Brannon noted that a number of people with knowledge of the transaction may not have been questioned by the people conducting the investigation.
Brannon added that he would like to be afforded time to understand the report better and ask questions of the independent counsel that the county had enlisted to prepare the report.
About one month earlier, after potential issues with the purchase of the half-acre parcel surfaced, the BCC had directed the independent review of the transaction. The investigation and report were assigned to William B. Graham of Carr Allison and George H. Gwynn of Williams, Gautier, Gwynn, DeLoach & Sorenson, P.A.
In preparing the report, Graham and Gwynn met with and interviewed a number of people with knowledge of the transaction, including: all five county commissioners; county staff members; former County Administrator Lyle Seigler; staff members of Preble-Rish, engineering consulting firm for the county; TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno; Lloyd Blue’s legal counsel; George Ralph Miller, special legal counsel for the purchase transaction; and current County Attorney Lynn Hoshihara.
The report included a “factual background and overview” of the transaction, beginning in 2009 with development of plans by Preble-Rish for the resurfacing of Chat Holley Road.
According to the report:
“The county, in consultation with Preble-Rish, determined that there was a need for additional right-of-way to construct a right-hand turn lane that allowed stacking of cars turning right onto 331.”
At the request of then-County Administrator Lyle Seigler, the state Department of Transporation (DOT) approved the use by the county of some funds for the road project from its Proportional Fair Share account, for the purpose of constructing sidewalks and other improvements, including a traffic light. With use of the funds came the requirement that the intersection be configured in a perpendicular arrangement for safety. For that design, it was determined that the acquisition of additional property at the southwest corner of the intersection would be required.
Lloyd Blue, owner of property adjacent to Chat Holley Road and commercial property across the street from the Chat Holley parcel, subsequently inquired “as to the nature of the improvements being considered.”
At approximately the same time, the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) was considering whether to build a new welcome center and move its current office. Blue suggested the vicinity of the southwestern corner of the U.S. 331/Chat Holley Road as an appropriate location for these TDC facilities, preparing a conceptual plan for the welcome center at that location and meeting with TDC representatives regarding this possibility. The TDC later gave up pursuit of locating in that area.
With work by the county on the road design process continuing, Seigler presented a proposal for the purchase of the half-acre parcel to the BCC on Aug. 24, 2010. “The BCC voted 4-0 in favor of the purchase and approved the sum of $345,000 to acquire the .45-acre parcel as part of the overall cost of the project which was approximately $1,025.00.” County Commissioner Scott Brannon, board chair at the time, was not present for the meeting.
At the time of the purchase approval by the BCC, some commissioners were aware that the seller of the parcel was 331 Bayside Properties, L.L.C., and some were not. The members of that L.L.C. are Lloyd Blue and wife Alexa Pleas.
“Section 286.23, Florida Statutes, requires the disclosure of the ownership of the L.L.C. when selling real property to the county. This was not done, and it appears that the legal counsel for the county was unaware of this requirement.”
Brannon and Pleas signed a purchase contract for the property, prepared on behalf of the L.L.C., in September 2010. Its terms required an Oct. 8, 2010 closing. George Ralph Miller, special counsel for the county at that time, was requested to “represent the county’s interest in the transaction.”
Small town politics not such a big deal. While business should be above board and tax dollars spent wisely, no doubt this one is about bed tax dollars trumping property tax dollars. When the bed tax dollars went away the veil was lifted. No doubt there is an element of retribution involved. Thank goodness for facts. Good job Dotty.
Hi, Bob, at the last BCC meeting (Oct 25) when the commissioners had postponed discussing the independent report, they had indicated that they would discuss it on Nov. 8. However, as you observed, when the agenda came out on Nov. 4, the report was not on the agenda for that meeting. Here's a link to the agenda: http://www.co.walton.fl.us/Archive.aspx?AMID=&Type=&ADID=813
November 21, 2011 10:02 PM
In what her attorney calls “an action to preserve the dignity of Florida’s celebrated Sunshine Law,” Miramar Beach resident Suzanne Harris has filed a lawsuit against the Walton County Commission.
The legal action specifically targets the commission’s failure to do what was necessary to prevent “the irregular and unlawful activities” it alleges occurred in the course of a county land purchase known colloquially as the Chat Holley transaction.
Bayside Properties LLC, a company owned by developer Lloyd Blue, made an estimated $345,000 on the sale of land for a traffic light. The lawsuit seeks reimbursement of those funds.
Blue could not be reached Monday for comment.
The lawsuit also demands that the county be required to seek repayment of all funds it paid to attorney George Ralph Miller pertaining to the Chat Holley transaction.
The legal action claims Miller was retained illegally to negotiate the land deal for the county and states he committed acts favoring Blue he knew or should have known were illegal.
Asked about the Chat Holley deal, Miller said, “I don’t think anything about it was illegal.”
He called the lawsuit “Suzanne Harris trying to smear somebody.”
The legal action also requests that Harris be allowed to assess her attorneys’ fees and costs against individual members of county government.
“Such an individual assessment is warranted and needed to ensure that Walton County taxpayers are not funding litigation for County Commission members who have broken the law,” the lawsuit said.
Commission Chairman Scott Brannon did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The lawsuit states the county violated the Sunshine Law by retaining Miller without holding a required public meeting to do so.
It also claims the Chat Holley transaction was closed without a commission vote to approve it.
The lawsuit alleges the county violated Florida public disclosure laws by failing to reveal that Blue was Miller’s “close friend and business associate.”
Harris is represented in her legal action by attorney and state Rep. Matt Gaetz.
Gaetz and Harris have successfully taken the county to task before for violations of the Sunshine Law.
“It’s significant that Walton County hasn’t learned the lesson,” Gaetz said. “Open government laws exist to protect the public and Walton County’s refusal to abide by open government laws is unacceptable.”
The transaction that led to the lawsuit filed Monday unfolded in July 2009 when the county began looking for land it needed to install a traffic signal at Chat Holley Road and U.S. Highway 331.
Blue and his wife, working as a company called 331 Bayside Properties LLC, obtained land in the area the county was looking at.
Then-County Administrator Lyle Siegler, whom the lawsuit refers to as another friend and associate of Blue, recommended the county purchase it.
Miller was retained for a $10,000 per month fee to represent the county in the Chat Holley transaction, according to reports.
Once retained, Miller convinced Brannon, as commission chairman, to sign off on the land deal without reviewing it, the lawsuit alleges.
It states Miller told Brannon he had reviewed the documents when in fact he hadn’t.
“The Chat Holley closing never should have occurred for several reasons,” the lawsuit alleges.
The document cites in bold letters “the county government already owned some of the property that it purchased.”
The lawsuit states it remains unclear who even hired Miller to conduct the Chat Holley transaction. Gaetz said he believes a great deal of information about the transaction will be revealed through depositions.
Miller disputed many of the allegations made.
He said survey records clearly indicate the county never bought land it already owned.
“They thought they had something they didn’t,” he said of Harris and Gaetz. “I don’t know why they keep repeating it. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
Miller said he was retained by the county the first time Harris sued in 2009 and has been on retainer since.
Miller said there was never a need to disclose to the county who owned the Chat Holley property it was seeking to buy.
“Whoever owned the property, the county wanted to buy it,” he said. “I never went to the board of commissioners to say, ‘Lloyd Blue owns that piece of property.’ It simply wasn’t material.”
Gaetz, however, said he thinks the Chat Holley transaction was plainly illegal.
He said it is possible that some “well-meaning” county commissioners “got duped by George Ralph Miller and Lloyd Blue” but it’s also possible there were county officials well aware of the illegality of their actions.
“Law enforcement should be involved. Crimes have been committed,” Gaetz said. “It shouldn’t always have to be Ms. Harris privately funding the prosecution of government officials who can’t abide by the law.”