By DOTTY NIST
While finding that the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority (NFTCA) is for the most part “conducting its business in accordance with requirements of public meetings, open records, and ethics,” a state oversight commission recently identified a number of concerns in connection with the operation of the NFTCA. Created in 2005 by the Florida Legislature, the NFTCA is an agency of the state encompassing eight counties and consisting of eight governor-appointed voting members plus an ex-officio, non-voting member, the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) secretary. The NFTCA is tasked with improving mobility on the U.S. 98 corridor and related duties with regard to that corridor. The agency is authorized to construct roads and other transportation facilities, any of which may be tolled. Mandated with oversight of the NFTCA, along with the 14 other transportation authorities created under chapters 343 and 348 of Florida Statutes, on March 20, the Florida Transportation Commission (FTC) transmitted to Gov. Charlie Crist its “Monitoring and Oversight, FY 2008 Report” on these transportation authorities. The report on the NFTCA that was part of this document noted that the agency had followed statutory requirements to meet at least quarterly at alternate locations, and to adopt a Corridor Master Plan and plan update within prescribed timelines. However, the report stated that the NFTCA did not comply with statutory requirements to present the July 1, 2008, master plan update “to the governing bodies of the counties within the corridor and legislative delegation members.” Such a presentation, the FTC stated, had been required within 90 days of the adoption. With regard to ethics, the oversight commission observed that the NFTCA had in January 2008 adopted a resolution calling for all board members and employees to follow Florida Statutes requirements for ethical conduct, and that no ethical violations or investigations had been reported by the board or noted in NFTCA meeting minutes. The commission did, however, find that an incident occurring in 2008 did raise questions on the agency’s conduct. This was in connection with a legally-mandated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) public hearing on a proposed critical habitat designation for the Reticulated Flatwood Salamander, a species already federally listed as threatened. The USFWS had/has been part of a working group attempting to formulate an alignment solution to potential impacts on the survival of this salamander species associated with the Eglin Bypass. This is a new four-lane limited-access highway proposed by the NFTCA to extend from SR-87 to U.S. 331. A $3 million study is now underway in connection with this proposal. According to the report, “NFTCA chose to politicize this issue at the public meeting held by the USFWS. A flyer, which carried the NFTCA logo, characterized the USFWS meeting as being a public meeting on the Bypass Road, citing that the proposed legislation by USFWS was an attempt to block construction of the road. “It was also noted that a staff member of the NFTCA’s consulting firm, HDR, Inc., was at the USFWS meeting handing out these flyers,” the report continued. The FTC report observed that these actions by the NFTCA could be “construed” as lobbying, and that the use of DOT funds for such activities could represent a statutory violation. It was recommended by the commission that the NFTCA “conduct a thorough review of Florida Statutes, Sunshine Laws and Ethics Codes in light of these activities and refrain from either conducting or giving the appearance of conducting any political or lobbying activities.” The report also alleges a failure by the NFTCA to fully meet disclosure requirements established by the commission with regard to financial and accounting statements. In the agency’s defense, it is noted that the NFTCA lacks operational funding for the preparation of an independent audit or annual financial report. The commission therefore directs the NFTCA to designate a board officer to file annual financial report information through an on-line mechanism. The report states that the NFTCA board has not adopted a formal budget, and the commission recommends in the report that the agency meet Florida Statutes’ requirements by doing so. The report also references public record and open meeting problems, observing one instance of a NFTCA meeting location having being changed with less than two days’ notice, and with that meeting being subsequently cancelled with only hours’ notice to the public on the agency’s Web site. “NFTCA should refrain from last minute changes in venue except in cases of unusual circumstances and should develop a more effective means of notifying the public of changes in location or cancellation of meetings,” the commission directed. The agency was also directed, in the interest of countering “public skepticism” about NFTCA objectives, to use “technology to broadcast updated information, publish updated Master Plans on its website, and generally provide more information to the public at-large. “The NFTCA could also post public comments received as an appendix to its Master Plan rather than requiring the public to request copies of public comments,” the commission suggested. The report further requests that the NFTCA review “all pertinent governing statutes…to insure that it is operating not only within the law but also within the spirit of the law. “Greater compliance with both the letter and spirit of the law and a more open public communication process can potentially diffuse some of the heated pubic discourse that has been occurring,” the report concludes. The FTC report is available for viewing in its entirety on the commision’s Web site, www.ftc.state.fl.us. Information on the NFTCA, including a meeting schedule, is available at www.nwftca.com.