Over the last year, I’ve purposely been very quiet about my personal situation, especially my employment. I’ve wanted to keep the focus on the DOAH court case and not on me. Now that the case has been decided, I can now share what happened to get us where we are.
Many of you know that I was the petitioner against the City of Stuart specific to the Kanner CPUD. And if you didn’t, now you do.
What you may not know is that if I wasn’t asked to resign from my job, there may not have been any petition against the City of Stuart over improper land use assignment to approve the Costco and all that came with it.
Before I begin, I would like to state that my former employer, The Community Foundation Martin – St. Lucie (TCFMSL) does good work. I was proud of the work done while I was there. They serve a need in the community and my issues are not with the organization or work itself. My issue is with my specific situation and how it was handled.
I was employed by The Community Foundation for almost 5 years. During that time, as I became aware of the overreach by the City of Stuart staff and commission, I began to learn as much as I could about what was happening behind the scenes.
I, along with many other concerned citizens, sent emails for the multitude of proposed developments and projects to the Land Planning Agency (LPA), City staff, and the Commissioners, often questioning policies, procedures, and decisions. Like many others, I was trying to understand what was being done, why it was being done, and what could be done to better protect and preserve the integrity of our community and its comprehensive plan.
I attended and made public comments at the LPA and City Commission meetings. I spoke against the myriad of variance exceptions for the many projects that came before the City Commission including Bridgeview and Central Parkway Lofts as well as others.
Any time I spoke, I spoke as Robin Cartwright, resident of the City of Stuart. I never once attended as a representative of The Community Foundation.
It should be noted that none of my emails or public comments ever prompted anyone to express any concern to my former employer, not until the Kanner CPUD / Costco came up for deliberation. I was then warned to not speak out against this specific development.
What happened to me should not happen to anyone.
On May 24, 2021, I worked in concert with Linda-Kay Richards, one of the intervenors against the Kanner CPUD, to prepare and present to the City Commission the issues with the proposed development.
As this was a quasi-judicial hearing, anyone presenting or giving testimony was sworn in.
Again, I was there as Robin Cartwright, resident and concerned citizen of Stuart, Florida.
For anyone who was there, you know this was a contentious meeting. To its credit, Costco had fierce advocates speaking about what a great company they were. The Chamber of Commerce had sent an email to its members stating to contact the LPA members and Commissioners and to encourage attendance at the meetings. Commissioner Bruner had sent multiple emails to those supporting the project thanking them for taking the time to send the email, but never sent any correspondence to those opposing it. (We discussed these emails in a previous blog post. Click here to read it.) The developer, M&M Realty, had retained representation from Gunster as its counsel.
But this wasn’t about the Costco. This fight was and has been about the improper assignment of land use, the zoning, and the bastardization of the comprehensive plan by City Staff who had been presenting the site plans as if they were ad hoc staff for the developer. This argument was only made that Costco was the subject of anything because the developer, Chamber of Commerce, and City of Stuart made it about Costco. Costco was but a tenant as part of the site plan. Costco was (and is) the trojan horse M&M presented to the community because it was a major tool used to sway public opinion in favor of this project. Many were not aware of the request to build 396 apartments, install 18 gas pumps, build two strip mall outparcels, and build two restaurants while ignoring the comprehensive plan. But Costco is integral to this story.
For my part of the presentation, I focused on the inconsistencies of Staff’s efforts that were submitted as part of the application. They accepted questionable reports from the traffic and environmental consultants, then presented them as fact, even though they were proven to be incomplete and subpar on multiple occasions. I spoke about the inappropriate emails sent by Commissioner Bruner to those who supported the Costco project meanwhile she never even acknowledged any of the emails opposing the project. We learned from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that some community members emailed the Commissioners for over 3 years, and many didn’t even get a response until right before August 9th meeting. The response that was received was basically a copy and paste response. I presented the emails that were sent between staff and the developer’s team that clearly and plainly discussed how to create a way to fit this project into a Neighborhood Special District land use (only the second time it would be proposed) to fit this square peg of a project into the round hole they would create by bulldozing 50 acres on Kanner Highway. Anything I presented was “how we got here” to show the bias of the presentation and recommendation by development staff to approve this project.
As part of the quasi-judicial hearing, the developer’s attorney, Mr. Bob Raynes of Gunster, was allowed to cross-examine those presenting as part of the intervenor’s team.
For what seemed like an hour, though really it was probably only minutes, Mr. Raynes asked me over and over “But are you an expert???” And my response was repeatedly “I am an expert in my community.”
He then asked me “For the record, where do you work?” And I answered that I was employed by The Community Foundation Martin – St. Lucie.
You should know that I grew up in here. My parents moved to Martin County when I was two years old. I went to elementary school at Jensen Beach Elementary, middle school at Stuart Middle, and graduated from Martin County High School. While I moved away for a number of years, I had been back at this point for maybe 10 years and, probably because of my job at The Community Foundation, I was uniquely privy to many things happening in Stuart and Martin County. However, I never once said that my job is why I was an expert.
The following week, I took some scheduled time off for a vacation. And when I came back to work, on June 15, 2021, I was approached by the President & CEO of The Community Foundation.
My former CEO came into my office to tell me that someone had contacted her regarding my participation opposing the Costco. Specifically, someone had contacted her saying I was too vocal and was posting inappropriate things on Facebook, and that someone would be sending a letter to the Board of Directors questioning my position and my integrity. I can’t remember exactly what was said since I was so overwhelmed by the fact that someone would threaten my job. I sent messages to a couple of different people detailing what had just happened. This is one example of the texts I sent. (Forgive the typos as I was very upset.)
Here is a separate series of texts sent specific to the situation sent that same day. (Again, forgive the typos as I was very upset.)
I took a few days off to collect myself as I was completely befuddled that a project, THIS project related to a big box store, would draw this reaction to have someone threaten my job.
The bigger questions were (and are), why would someone have to threaten doing any business with a local organization (the foundation) and specifically someone’s job just to get this project done, and why would anyone, at the foundation or anywhere, think this was remotely okay???
No opposition to any other project prompted any conversation with my former CEO. No opposition to any other project prompted a veiled threat.
As part of this conversation in June, my former CEO told me that while she was not legally able to prevent me from speaking out, she did tell me that I had to make a decision: I could be a community advocate, or I could be an employee of The Community Foundation. I was told if I chose to resign, there would be a significant transition period so someone could be hired and trained. During my time at the Foundation and at the time of this conversation, I was responsible for basically all of the operations at the Foundation. I managed the grant requests. I was the main contact for groups like Impact 100. I participated in the Funder Consortium meetings for Martin and St. Lucie counties assisting with supporting the nonprofits during COVID. (I even learned how to become a vendor with a medical supply company to order necessary PPP items for the nonprofits.) I oversaw the only other employee and the daily duties for which she was responsible. I was responsible for so many things that when people asked me what my job was, I joked I did everything the CEO did not do. We were a small team but efficient and effective and I was an integral part of building the capacity of the organization.
I valued my job. And I was good at my job. Being an employee of The Community Foundation, at that moment, meant more to me. I conceded that I would no longer be out front for any part of the effort to fight the Costco or any other development. I conceded to this even though my right to speak out was impeded by someone who didn’t have the guts to speak to me directly. I conceded to this even though I knew that what the City was doing was not right. I conceded to this even though someone’s anonymous actions were unethical and improper.
So, from that discussion on June 15, 2021, until the second reading for the project on August 9, 2021, I became almost invisible when it came to anything happening in the City of Stuart.
Over this period, I learned that the former City Administrator, Mr. David Ross, was forced out by a Commission vote over this same Costco proposal. Read the full TCPalm article dated 03/07/2018 here including memo from Mr. Ross to Roz Johnson, HR Director.
Then the August 9th Stuart commission second reading specific to the Kanner CPUD was scheduled to begin.
I walked from my office in Monterey Commons to the Blake Library where I passed a Chamber of Commerce employee outside handing out “Yes to Costco” shirts to anyone who wanted one. I sat in the audience to support the amazing effort of Linda-Kay Richards, who was standing up to fight for our community. She was David to M&M Realty and Costco’s Goliath.
I sat in the audience and as I listened to the pro-Costco contingency read what seemed like provided talking points including what a wonderful and magnanimous company Costco was and how great this developer was for bringing Costco to Stuart, I decided at that moment I couldn’t remain silent.
At that moment I realized what bullies the developer, their hired representation, and those working to ram this project through were. At that moment I realized how manipulated I was. Because whether it was someone from the developer’s office, someone from Costco, or someone associated in any way to this project, there was nothing remotely gracious and magnanimous about threatening someone’s job.
I texted my then-CEO to advise her I was going to speak at the meeting. And the comment she responded with was “So you made your choice.”
Actually, my choice was made for me by the fact that someone threatened my job over this particular project. And my choice was solidified when the organization for whom I worked for almost 5 years opted to not stand up against bullying, especially bullying of one of their employees.
When I went in to work the next day, I was told what a disappointing decision I made and was told my resignation would be effective immediately. No transition. No opportunity to say goodbye to any community partners or vendors. Just an unceremonious submission of a letter of resignation against my better judgement and will.
Once that happened, deciding to fully pursue the opportunity to be the petitioner became a non-issue. I knew what the City had approved was overreach and not in compliance with state guidelines and best practices.
I waited until we won our DOAH case against the City of Stuart to truly pursue a meeting with an employment lawyer. Florida is an employment-at-will state and cases like mine can be difficult to prove. Yes, I resigned but it was under the duress of a threat.
I sent an email to the Board Chair, with whom I was friends, stating that I would like to not include The Community Foundation as part of any suit. I told her I would just like a copy of the letter or name of the person who made the threat. If it wasn’t provided, litigation would have to be filed against the Foundation if only to confirm who provided the message of the threat and who made the actual threat.
I was hopeful to get an answer. Instead, I got the following:
“Below is the contact information for Joe Santoro, legal counsel representing me, Elizabeth, and the Foundation. Sadly, I find myself in a position where I can no longer communicate with you directly on any matter related to your prior employment. Please pass his information on to your counsel.”
Deep down, I knew the Foundation would take a conservative stance, but I honestly thought they would share this supposed letter and/or at least the name of the person who delivered the message. To say I’m disappointed in the lack of candidness and honesty is an understatement. I expected and deserve better.
But mostly, I’m appalled that they would hire a lawyer from Gunster.
It is beyond the pale that The Community Foundation would retain *this* firm.
This is the firm that represented Costco and the developer. This is the same firm connected to the project connected to the lawsuit filed against the City of Stuart. This is the same firm connected to the very same project that someone communicated a threat on behalf of which ultimately forced me out of my job, simply due to my vocal opposition to the project. The same project that was deemed as part of the ordinance to be in violation of the comprehensive plan.
I don’t know if the letter was ever sent to the Board of Directors, as stated it would be done. Legally, it doesn’t even matter. What matters is the threat that was made. It constitutes tortious interference.
So, as no one will share with me who said what, we now need to pursue yet another lawsuit – and probably multiple lawsuits – just so the identity of the person who made the anonymous threat can be learned and so accountability can finally be had. I am entitled to this.
Shady backroom deals solidified by a handshake happen all the time. I’m not blind to any of that. But it’s not normal, or at least it shouldn’t be. And it’s definitely not okay.
I am appalled and amazed that any project would warrant a threat of someone’s livelihood to get a development approved. That’s not normal. And that’s not okay.
I am even more appalled and amazed at the lengths those involved are willing to go to keep someone’s identity protected. And for what? A big box store and a bunch of apartments and all that comes with it crammed on a piece of land for a project that was ultimately ruled in violation of the comprehensive plan.
I am 99% sure I know with whom my former CEO spoke and who delivered the threat of the letter being sent to the Board. And I am 99% sure I know who made the actual threat.
But 99% sure doesn’t cut it in a court of law. So here we go again. Back to court.
I still owe money to the attorneys for the case we won against the City of Stuart. Even with generous donations from many of you, there is still a balance due. With the type of case that was filed, there is not an opportunity to have legal fees paid by the loser. There is no “prize” for winning the DOAH case. I didn’t personally win anything. Anything spent (and owed) comes out my pocket and the pocket of those who recognize the importance of the suit we filed. The case was for the greater good of the community. Again, I gained nothing from it. And now I will owe money to an employment attorney.
All because to some people this deal is worth more than our quality of life, our community, the health of our environment, our increasing traffic, our comprehensive plan, and my job.
None of this should be normalized. None of this is okay.