In our efforts to learn how the LPA views a project, how their votes affect a City Commission hearing, and what had been done to date specific to the Kanner CPUD where the Costco is proposed to go, we collectively used our resources to ask as many questions as we could to learn how the process really worked. And one of the things we learned is that there are many conflicts of interest at play for Kanner CPUD and with several other development projects in the City of Stuart and Martin County.
It is a best practice for any company or organization to have a Conflict of Interest policy in place. Even many nonprofit boards and committees have a policy in place. Martin County Board of County Commissioners has one in place (click here to read it) that is very clear and, as we understand it, they follow it. But it’s a little less clear with the City of Stuart.
Here are three examples of conflicts of interest we encountered in our efforts to protect our community.
There was and is a major concern over Commissioner Bruner’s responses to those emailing in support of a Costco. Is there an issue that Ms. Bruner responded? No. It is good that when someone emails a Commissioner that they respond if only to acknowledge that the email has been received, even if it’s an auto-generated response. However, Ms. Bruner responded to ONLY those who were in favor of a Costco and we found at least 4 emails where she said “Please have your friends email me and the other commissioners too. It’s important that we hear from you all.”
That’s funny. I wrote against the Kanner CPUD being assigned any land use or zoning that would allow for something like a Costco and I didn’t get that email. In fact, in looking through literally hundreds of emails to and from Commissioner Bruner, there was not one email that we could find in which she responded to someone who opposed the project with anything, much less encouragement to email her fellow commissioners.
There was also email correspondence from Ms. Bruner to the individual who started the “Martin County Welcomes Costco to Stuart” Facebook page.
Again, the issue is not that a commissioner corresponded with a constituent. The issue is the fact that a commissioner corresponded selectively advocating for pro-Costco emails to be sent to other other commissioners and encouraged these constituents to get others involved.
A conflict of interest that affects the City and the County is the one with environmental consultant, EW Consultants, and their role in projects presented like the Kanner CPUD, Bridgeview, and other projects in the area.
Mr. Ed Weinberg, who no longer possesses his Professional Wetland Scientist accreditation as of 2019, prepared a report on behalf of and paid for by the developer that was incomplete, at best. Mr. Weinberg’s report basically stated that the 10 wetlands on site had no value and that there were no nesting species in the vicinity, much less on the parcel itself. However, in his original report he only mentioned 7 of the 10 wetlands. That’s an issue in itself, though not a conflict of interest. It’s just an issue.
The intervenor against the project, Ms. Linda-Kay Richards, and I, as the petitioner for the DOAH hearing, were forced to hire an expert who testified to dispute his report as a whole, which included his statements that certain animal and plant species didn’t exist on the parcel.
Specific to the gopher tortoises on site at the proposed Kanner CPUD, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was notified that the activity on the site was not respectful of the gopher tortoise burrows. Included was a photo with measurements that the 25 foot requirement around the burrows was not being respected or followed.
FWC does not have an office or representative specifically here in Martin County, but they do have an Authorized Gopher Tortoise Agent who is here. And that person works at EW Consultants. So that employee at EW Consultants, of course, said they were observing and following the rules.
Needless to say we are not comfortable with that response as it’s a real conflict of interest and have a call this Friday with a different representative at FWC.
But the bigger issue with Mr. Weinberg at EW Consultants is the juxtaposition as an environmental consultant with the stances he has taken as a paid consultant for developers.
Mr. Weinberg has lobbied against the Endangered Species Act on behalf of builders and developers.
On May 26, 1999, Mr. Weinberg testified in Washington DC at an Oversight Hearing “LAND AND MONEY MITIGATION REQUIREMENTS IN ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT ENFORCEMENT”. You can read the entire transcript by clicking here or you can click here to read the pages excerpted with solely his testimony.
About the Endangered Species Act:
- “The implementation of the Act places an inordinate burden of protecting listed species on private property owners, especially in the building industry. Builders and developers are consistently forced to provide expansive and expensive preserves to which the public benefits without any such burden or responsibility.”
- “Implementation of the ESA often places inordinate burden on select groups of individuals, especially private property owners in the building industry. All citizens have the opportunity to benefit equally from the protection and recovery of listed species. However, not everyone is sharing equally in the responsibility for protecting these species. Often, a landowner that is honest and forthright enough to point out the presence of listed species on his property is required to establish large preserve areas and/or participate financially in mitigation programs to protect and manage the species. The adjacent owners and the public at large all benefit from the protection provided at the expense of this individual or group, but they are not shouldered with any of the burden of affording that protection. Certain existing mitigation requirements offer little incentive to the private property owner to preserve species and their habitat, in fact, the threat of mitigation requirements can do the opposite.”
About regulation and oversight:
- “The time consuming bureaucratic delays included the Fish and Wildlife Service conducting a Section 7 Consultation with itself to determine whether the section 10 permit was consistent with the Act. Redundant regulatory requirements like this cause delays to landowners.”
- “Federal agencies are holding private landowners to unpredictable and often unreasonable mitigation standards to address conservation needs for listed species. In addition, sufficient scientific data is often lacking when establishing the mitigation requirements.”
Is it not a conflict for someone to write reports used in quasi-judicial proceedings about protecting something which they have actively lobbied against?
Yet this is my favorite quote “If we can provide the necessary predictability and certainty to landowners both small and large, we can harness the power of all our citizens to join in.”
Yes, Mr. Weinberg, if only…
We also uncovered a conflict of interest with City of Stuart staff.
Kevin Freeman, Development Director for the City of Stuart, has a private company that – wait for it – specializes in land planning, development, and comprehensive plans in Martin County.
On March 11, 2021, I reached out to someone on the Martin County transportation board with a concern. My email said “I have a very specific concern about the company Kev Freeman owns with his wife. Here is the link to Sunbiz and here is the link to their company’s website. Regarding the LLC, there have been a couple they have opened and closed but there is always one open. I am gravely concerned that he is being paid by the City of Stuart his salary and he and/or his wife are also benefiting from any consulting being done with any of the projects that he is putting forth to the LPA and the City for approval. …”
The response I got was basically that I was messing with someone’s income and to be very sure of what I was asking, insinuating, or accusing someone.
So with trepidation and a want to understand how someone could have a private company that, according to its own website, performs the same tasks as their tax-payer provided day job, I reached out to the City Administrator, David Dyess. I expressed my concern and asked if there was a conflict of interest on file with the City of Stuart specific to Mr. Freeman having a company that explicitly stated its purpose is what he already does for the City of Stuart.
We were provided a handwritten list that was given to Mr. Dyess by Mr. Freeman. As we understand it, there is still no conflict of interest on file, only a requirement that Mr. Freeman provide a notice as to any future work. According to the City Administrator, the City sees no issue with Mr. Freeman having a private company as long as he advises the City as to what projects he accepts and none are located within the City of Stuart.
When Kevin first came here he did file an employment conflict notification for DNA which was a UK only consulting business. I approved that business but was not aware that a new one was formed. I required Kevin to remove himself from the company, provide all projects worked on from company inception (none of which have conflicts) and provide conflict notice for any future work the company may do in Stuart. I did authorize a second company for UK work only and he was issued a letter of reprimand.Dave Dyess to Robin Cartwright, March 22, 2021
It should be noted that Mr. Freeman used his City of Stuart email address to send emails to and from his private company email. While the contents of those emails are innocuous, it was not a personal email address that was used. The email address was one belonging to a for-profit business that provides the same services as his tax-paid position. Mr. Freeman has since taken his name off of the company, however his wife is now the principal agent and it’s still registered as active with the state of Florida.
If the City Administrator doesn’t see it as a conflict, is it a conflict? In whose interest is Mr. Freeman acting when he is presenting a project on behalf of a developer? We have to assume he is acting as a City employee as he is presenting himself as such at the meeting.
So is there an issue with Mr. Freeman having owned and operated or currently owning or operating a company? No.
Is there an issue with Mr. Freeman having owned and operated a company that specialized in Martin County Planning, Planned Unit Developments, Comprehensive Plan Amendments, Rezoning, Text Changes, and Entitlements? At a minimum, it is an apparent or perceived conflict of interest.
We can only go by what he has shared with the City Administrator and City Attorney. If he says there is none, we have to assume that to be true. FOIA requests do not cover private entities so there is no way to know if Mr. Freeman’s private company – that clearly stated on his website specialized in “the complexities of the Martin County Land Development Regulations and Comprehensive Growth Management Plan” – worked with any of the developers for projects recently annexed in to and/or approved by the City of Stuart.
Perceived, apparent, and real conflicts of interest exist. And not all can be avoided. We recognize that. But at what cost is a conflict of interest to us as a community? At what point does someone in our local offices – elected or staff – step back to review the situation and view it for what it actually is?
As Merriam-Webster stated, “a conflict between the private interests and the official responsibilities of a person in a position of trust.” We should be able to trust those in charge and assume positive intent. However based on what we’ve learned, we should not be intimidated to ask questions. We deserve answers.
We deserve better.