By DOTTY NIST
Recent public discussions related to the Walton County Tourist Development Council’s (TDC) recent settlement with BP and vending of chairs and umbrellas on the beach became heated.
The matters came up at the March 11 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the South Walton Annex.
Walton County Attorney Mark Davis was the first to discuss the TDC settlement with BP, saying that he would seek an attorney general’s opinion and possibly also a Florida Ethics Commission’s opinion on matters related to a contract between the TDC, the county, and law firms in connection with the litigation against BP. Davis said he was doing this as a result of issues raised by the public and individual commissioners. “I have some questions,” Davis added.
Davis went on to explain that there was some question as to whether the contract had been approved by the BCC or not. He noted that a vote on a contract after the fact is considered a remedy in such situations. He told the commissioners that he would put the contract on the agenda for their next meeting.
Coming forward to comment, Miramar Beach resident Suzanne Harris told the commissioners that she had been “appalled” to learn recently that Clay Adkinson, the TDC attorney, had also been “getting paid” by the attorneys hired to represent the TDC in seeking funds from BP in the litigation.
Harris saw this as a conflict but did not provide an explanation.
She asked each commissioner and County Administrator/former Commissioner Larry Jones if they had known that Adkinson would be getting money (a percentage) from the BP settlement with the TDC. Three current commissioners had not been on the BCC when the contract was signed in 2011. All answered Harris’ question in the negative, although District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander said she recalled voting to hire the Adkinson Law Firm as local representative for Beasley Allen in connection with the litigation.
Harris pointed out that this was the county lawsuit against BP, separate from the one filed in connection with the TDC’s losses related to the oil spill.
Comander said she had no recollection of the Adkinson Law Firm being hired to represent the TDC. She added she would prefer to wait for the results of Davis’ inquiries before passing judgment.
Davis also commented that he had not previously noticed the Adkinson Law Firm’s name appearing on the paperwork for the TDC litigation.
Harris went on to question certain travel-related expenses incurred by Adkinson, the former TDC director, and a former county commissioner in connection with the litigation, charging that taxpayer money had been misspent.
Later in the meeting, Darrick Lund approached the commissioners in opposition to current code provisions for chair and umbrella vendors’ morning access to the beach during sea turtle nesting season.
County code currently provides for access to the beach at 8 a.m. or after a morning sea turtle nesting survey is completed, whichever is earlier.
Charging a lack of communication, Lund said vendors had received complaints from tourists about delay in having their chairs and umbrellas delivered. He also spoke of the possibility of heat exhaustion of vendors due to the delay.
Lund suggested that vendors be allowed to become South Walton Turtle Watch volunteers so that they could do sea turtle nesting surveys on their area of the beach themselves.
He pointed out that the code does not place restrictions on “tourists” accessing the beach in the morning. He told the commissioners that the public might place items on the beach that could harm sea turtles. Lund recommended revising the county’s contract with the South Walton Turtle Watch to have turtle surveys end no later than one hour after sunrise and making requirements for vendors and the general public accessing the beach the same.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander was in favor of looking at making the changes that Lund had suggested. However District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows questioned how it would work for vendors to become turtle watch volunteers. Would they walk a mile of beach to survey for turtle nests before starting to set up, she asked, and if a nest was found, would they want to “hang around” to get it marked before starting to set up their chairs and umbrellas?
Richard Fowlkes of the South Walton Turtle Watch noted that the current ordinance for vendors has not been in place long. He encouraged the commissioners to “give it a chance.”
Fowlkes also encouraged vendors to sign up for the phone app that is available to let them know when the sea turtle survey for their area had been completed so that they could access the beach prior to 8 a.m.
“We’re out there at dawn,” Fowlkes said, adding that the surveys are finished “long before 8 a.m.”
Fowlkes said that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had told the turtle watch that it would represent a conflict for vendors to serve as turtle watch volunteers.
“How is it fair to enforce me and not the tourist?” vendor Jimbo Bishop asked the BCC, speaking of morning beach access code provisions.
“There’s two sides to it,” Meadows commented. She said local people have told her that the vendors “take up the whole beach” with their chairs and umbrellas in some places and that locals cannot get on the beach. Some people cannot afford to rent a beach chair, she added, and “they deserve to get on the beach, too.”
After some further discussion, staff were directed to work with the vendors and the turtle watch and bring back information on the matter for the next BCC meeting at the South Walton Annex (4 p.m. on April 8).
By DOTTY NIST