STUART — If you see former Martin County commissioners Anne Scott or John Haddox today, thank them for blowing millions of your tax dollars after getting called out for hiding what could’ve been illegal secret exchanges.
If you happen to talk to current commissioners Sarah Heard or Ed Fielding, you might tell them respectfully to conduct themselves more honorably in the future.
Because of their behavior, taxpayers are set to take a financial hit much worse than first believed in the settlement reached this week in its feud against developer Lake Point.
Two weeks ago, we told you exclusively a settlement package worth about $20 million was in the works.
When all is said and done, the package approved by the county commission Tuesday will cost taxpayers between $23.8 and $26.2 million.
Here is the break down:
— $12 million to Lake Point. To pay for it without raising property taxes, the county administration will have to take a loan for 10-15 years. At a current interest rate of 4%, the interests payments alone would add an additional $4.8 million for 10 years, or $7.2 million for 15 years. So, your $12 million will vary between $16.8 million or $19.2 million.
— $5 million in payments to law firms contracted by the county commission to defend it
— $500,000 in reimbursements for the time and efforts that Lake Point put in to obtain public records that should’ve been readily available to the public
— $1.5 million in legal costs incurred by the county’s own legal department
No matter how you slice it, the litigation against Lake Point will cost taxpayers between $23.8 – $26.2 million! That’s up to $450 per household in the county.
Wait, there is more.
Under this settlement, Lake Point will no longer have to put $40 million into the several hundred acres it owns in environmental enhancements, and to treat and clean water from Lake Okeechobee.
County officials are closed mouth about the settlement. Commissioner Sarah Heard, who is under investigation by the State Attorney’s office for how she handled her records, was the sole dissenting vote in Tuesday’s approval of the package.
In a nutshell, the controversy centered around whether ex-commissioners Scott and Haddox, and current commissioners Heard and Fielding of conspiring against Lake Point and allegedly altering emails and other public records to hide it.
High-profile environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla was also named in the lawsuit but will not have to pay for any of it.
Had Martin County lost at trial, the county could’ve been on the hook for $60 million, including punitive damages.
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 Scott and Haddox on the previous commission, and current county commissioners Heard and Fielding is what Lake Point objected to.
Those included allegations that the politicians refused to surrender emails proving they conspired against Lake Point with environmental causes legend Hurchalla, who claimed Lake Point’s project threatened 60 acres of wetlands.
Sarah 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.
In Florida, most government-related records are readily available to the public at large. Elected officials who hold back can be charged with a misdemeanor and be removed from office by the governor.