The Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Board decided Monday to call for third-party inquiries into a letter sent to Gov. Rick Scott from a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office e-mail address that alleged board mismanagement and corruption in the speed-bump portion of a paving project near completion.
District Administrator Clete Saunier said he’d received a memo from the governor’s office dated March 21, along with a copy of the letter. Saunier said several board members had directed him to put the letter on the agenda, adding that the writer’s name had been stricken in copies sent to members as well as in the agenda materials, at the request of PBSO Lt. David Combs, commander of the PBSO’s Acreage/Loxahatchee substation, who is investigating the situation.
Saunier said the letter made a number of allegations against the district and had been filed with the governor’s office by a district property owner.
The letter questions the legitimacy of the water control district.
“We are a town with council members voted by majority votes of the residents (which is great),” the letter stated. “We also have the Loxahatchee [Groves] Water Control District still operating under antiquated statutes giving them the authority based on its members being elected by one vote per acre.”
The letter asserted that a monopoly bloc has been elected to the board by a few large landowners and is imposing regulations and creating special taxing districts for road improvements.
“This is where a major mismanagement of taxpayers’ money comes in because three people on the water district board placed there by one vote per acre, not the majority of residents, are doing what they want carte blanche regardless of what the taxpayers who are paying for the improvements want,” the writer continued.
The letter went on to complain about the placement of speed bumps on recently improved roadways and asserted that the decision puts residents at risk by delaying essential lifesaving services.
LGWCD Chairman Dave DeMarois asked attorney Mary Viator about the author’s name being stricken and whether it became public record if sent to the governor’s office. Viator said there are no provisions for exemptions other than for custodians of certain information, for which a written request for such an exemption must be made. “To our knowledge, no such written request was made,” Viator said.
Supervisor John Ryan said he thought such allegations should be formally reviewed by their attorney and a response made to appropriate public authorities that might be involved.
“I think that these include the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission, the Palm Beach County Office of the Inspector General, the governor’s office, the local [legislative] delegation staff, and most importantly, the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council,” Ryan said. “I think that there were several issues with the e-mail coming from a PBSO address.”
Ryan noted that the use of PBSO e-mail might give the comments more credibility than if they’d come from another resident, “especially with respect to emergency response.”
Ryan suggested that the board make a list of the issues raised in the letter and explain why the decisions were made. “We have a liability for the work that we authorize on behalf of the district,” he said. “We have to have a reasonable basis for making our decisions.”
He noted that the discussion regarding speed bumps on paved roads dates back to at least 2006, noting that there are special circumstances where the district’s canals are immediately adjacent to the roads.
“We cannot afford the guardrails,” Ryan said. “We found that the nature and spacing of the speed humps do control the speed and have prevented accidents.”
Ryan added that there are several Florida Supreme Court judgments upholding the validity of the one-acre, one-vote method for certain rural areas.
Supervisor Don Widing said he respects people’s right to free speech and their right to address their concerns with elected officials.
“However, in this case, there was a public charge of corruption by a formal complaint,” Widing said. “My livelihood depends on my reputation and my credibility… Therefore, I request that some direction be given to our attorney to have this matter brought here before the state attorney or the [Florida Commission on Ethics] so we get some type of third-party review of this.”
Supervisor Frank Schiola agreed that the matter should be moved to an investigating agency. “This is all part of transparency,” he said.
DeMarois asked Viator about breaking down the allegations, but Widing said he preferred to send the complaint in its entirety. “The charge of ‘corruption’ is what needs to be looked at and needs to be defined,” Widing said.
Viator said the complaint could be referred to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office or the Florida Commission on Ethics for an advisory opinion, noting that it’s within the board’s discretion.
During public comment, several residents said they thought the board was overreacting and that referring the issue to other agencies was a form of retaliation, but Widing disagreed.
“I would like to think that a majority of our residents would respect this board for wanting to have a third-party review of this,” he said. “I think that’s important. I don’t think the residents of this town deserve anything less.”
DeMarois said Viator had told him people have a right to say what they want to a certain extent, and that he thought if the governor’s office suspected the board was corrupt, there would already be an investigation.
“I just don’t see that happening, and far as the people there, they have to have a way of venting,” he said. “I would like to see them restrict themselves to coming up to the meetings and vent that way, rather than get other public agencies involved, but I’m not going to support going in for a formal investigation.”
Combs commented that the situation and how it came about is being taken very seriously by the PBSO.
“That complaint came to my desk for investigation,” Combs said. “I have completed an investigation and turned over my findings to my commander. I just want you to know that it has been looked at, and there is no question of whether it has been swept under the rug. That does not happen.”
Combs said that when the findings have been finalized, he would pass the information on to Saunier.
A motion was made to direct staff to refer the complaint to the State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Commission on Ethics with a request to investigate, which carried 4-1 with DeMarois opposed.