STUART — A special behind-closed-doors meeting of the Martin County Board of Commissioners called for this afternoon to vote on a settlement with a developer who sued the commission over its mishandling of public records has been postponed until Monday.
But what county residents will end up shelling out is likely to stay near a whopping $20 million!
A source close to the negotiations tells Gossip Extra exclusively that taxpayers are set to pay Lake Point LLC close to $20 million, courtesy of current and former commissioners who refused to follow Florida’s open records laws and allegedly conspired in secret to break a deal with the land company.
The lawsuit accused ex-commissioners Anne Scott and John Haddox, and current commissioners Sarah Heard and Ed Fielding of conspiring against Lake Point and allegedly altering emails and other public records to hide it.
There’s no comment from either side about the settlement since the talks, and Monday’s vote, are supposed to be conducted in secret.
“The vote was postponed because some details are still being worked on,” the source said. “But it’s a done deal.”
And despite the agreement, State Attorney Bruce Colton‘s office is conducting on-going criminal investigation into the handling of public records, and could convene a grand jury to consider criminal charges.
The far-reaching lawsuit was set to go to trial in October, but the proceedings were postponed to February 2018.
With legal fees from the county’s part reaching upward of $6 million and counting, the county decided it was time for taxpayers to cut their losses.
Had Martin County lost at trial, the county could’ve been on the hook for $60 million, including punitive damages.
Under the deal set to be voted on today then postponed, and expected to pass unanimously, each county household’s burden will be about $350!
High-profile environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla was also named in the lawsuit but will not have to pay for any of it.
The case centers around events that first started 10 years ago, when Martin County approved a plan to allow Lake Point to excavate 2 million cubic yards of lime rock, a basic ingredient in construction concrete, on a 2,000-acre vacant piece of land in the western confines of the county near Port Mayaca.
Afterwards, Lake Point hoped to use the land as a reservoir to retain water discharges from Lake Okeechobee and partnered up with the South Florida Water Management District and Martin County to make it happen. Lake Point was also going to sell some of the water to the city of West Palm Beach and, in the future, other entities.
But while the public-private partnership was lauded as the first of its kind in Florida, several Martin commissioners elected on anti-development platforms feared that Lake Point would also develop the land. They started a process that would end with the county severing ties with Lake Point, costing the company millions.
The behind-closed-doors dealings of previous and current county commissioners is what Lake Point objected to.
Those included allegations that the politicians refused to surrender emails proving they conspired against Lake Point with Hurchalla, who claimed Lake Point’s project threatened 60 acres of wetlands.
Current Commissioner Heard even hid emails in her personal Yahoo account then claimed she no longer could find them because, she said, her account was hacked. Yahoo and techs hired to look into her claims debunked them.
Former Commissioner Anne Scott was preparing to testify about why it took her years to give up email records where she discussed county government business when the trial was postponed.
“This case isn’t really about money,” former judge Scott told us before word that a settlement was near. “This is about a billionaire landowner trying to crush individuals who have tried to go against him.”
The commissioners’ lack of responsiveness to Lake Point’s constitutionally-protected public records requests, by the way, was settled in February in mediation, and Martin County lost. It was ordered to pay a total $500,000 for Lake Point’s legal fees and forced to draft a clear policy in the handling of public records. Elected commissioners are now banned from using private email accounts and social media to discuss official county business.
The mediator in that case singled out commissioners Heard and Scott for their refusal to follow the law.
Believe it or not, Lake Point lawyers were still gathering in September Martin County emails they requested years ago.