By DOTTY NIST
In a relatively brief but animated meeting, their last for 2016, county commissioners opted to approve a contract for an intermodal transportation study, set meeting dates for the newly-created Walton County Customary Use Ordinance Committee, and voted to pay $175,000 in legal fees in connection with a judge’s ruling against the county in circuit court.
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) Dec. 27 regular meeting took place at the Walton County Courthouse.
Intermodal transportation study
The contract coming before the BCC on Dec. 27 was with Dewberry/Preble-Rish, which had been top-ranked by staff of the firms that had responded to the county’s request for qualifications to conduct the intermodal transportation study, which is officially known as the 30A Intermodal Mobility Autonomous Vehicle Feasibility Study Phase I.
The study is to examine the creation of intermodal, sustainable and other advanced transportation solutions, to include autonomous (self-driving) vehicles, with the goals of reducing traffic and parking congestion along CR-30A, enhancing workforce mobility on U.S. 331, and providing interconnectivity with other regional transportation nodes.
The cost of the $500,000 study is to be paid through Northwest Florida Regional Planning Council Park/Ride grant funding provided to Walton County through an agreement with the state Department of Transportation (DOT).
The study is part of a larger initiative known as the 30A Mobility Project, spearheaded by the Seaside Institute, which sponsored public workshops in 2016 on mobility and advanced transportation technologies.
As the study contract was considered at the Dec. 27 meeting, south Walton County resident Celeste Cobena addressed the commissioners on ideas and concepts that she urged to be eliminated from the study. These were related to discussion at the workshops of state parks and forest property being used as transportation corridors and parking lots for individuals and businesses.
She emphasized that the purpose of these areas is conservation and passive recreation and observed that past efforts by some to use them for other purposes in Walton County had not been successful. Future efforts to do so would not be feasible, Cobena warned.
District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper agreed that it would be a waste of money to study using these conservation lands for the purposes discussed.
“Don’t build roads through our state park,” south Walton County resident Alan Osborne agreed. He asked what would be wrong with telling a new business, “sorry we’re out of parking,” when that is the case.
Mac Carpenter, Walton County planning manager, commented that the contract before the BCC was a study contract that would examine different options on how to deal with traffic on CR-30A, with no “predetermined” option. “We have to do something,” he emphasized.
“This is just a study,” District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson observed. He said he would not support “tearing up” public lands or putting (private individual or business) parking in parks or forests. He moved to approve the study contract.
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman was in agreement, seconding the motion and saying that the county should proceed with the study while remaining very sensitive to preserving the forest and parks.
Nipper offered an amendment to the motion to stipulate that avenues other than public lands would be looked at for roads and parking. However the proposed amendment was not approved.
Chance Powell, county public works engineer, commented that the primary focus of the study would be autonomous vehicles and their use on existing or new facilities not on public lands.
With a vote taken, Anderson’s motion for approval of the contract carried with all aye votes of the four commissioners in attendance.
Customary Use Ordinance Committee meeting schedule
In other action, several meetings were scheduled for the newly-created Customary Use Ordinance Committee. These included an organizational meeting on Jan. 16 and two additional meetings on Jan. 23 and Jan. 30, with all meetings to begin at 5 p.m. and take place at the South Walton Annex.
Composed of a mixture of beachfront and non-beachfront members and one north county resident, the committee is to review and discuss the ordinance, which was approved by the BCC on Oct. 25 and is set to take effect on April 1, 2017, and possibly bring before the BCC recommendations, ideas, alternatives or proposed amendments to the ordinance.
Committee meetings are to be open to public attendance and participation, and it is anticipated that they will be videotaped for viewing on the Walton County website, www.co.walton.fl.us.
Payment of legal fees
Also before the commissioners at the Dec. 27 meeting was a recommendation by Mark Davis, county attorney, for payment of $175,000 in attorney fees and court costs to Suzanne Harris, plaintiff in the Harris v. Walton County lawsuit, which had been filed in November 2011.
Davis indicated that the payment amount had been per an agreement of the attorneys representing the county and Harris.
Harris had filed her lawsuit against Walton County a year after the county’s purchase of a half-acre parcel at U.S. 331 and Chat Holley Road, where intersection improvements and a traffic signal are now in place.
The complaint had originally contained three “counts” or causes of action, the first of those being the allegation that the county had violated Florida’s Sunshine Law by the retention of George Ralph Miller, the special legal counsel (now deceased) who oversaw the Chat Holley purchase, outside of public session. Another count charged a Sunshine Law violation involving the county’s entering into a contract and purchasing the property, alleging that these actions had never been approved in a public meeting and should therefore be considered void. An additional count charged Walton County with violation of the state’s Public Disclosure Statute, stating that the county had purchased the property without the disclosure of its ownership being made at least 10 days prior to the closing.
By 2012, only the count concerning the retention of legal counsel outside of public session remained part of the lawsuit, the other counts having been either denied in court or withdrawn by the plaintiff. The case had been transferred from Walton County Circuit Court to Santa Rosa County Circuit Court the following year.
In a ruling that year, Santa Rosa County Circuit Court Judge Marci L. Goodman observed that neither party had raised a question about compliance with the Sunshine Law of Dec. 22, 2009 action by the BCC to hire Miller as special counsel to participate in an executive session on separate litigation filed by Harris involving public records—“and to help in this matter and any other duties that we think he might help us with at this time,” as stated in the approved motion by District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander.
Goodman also noted that in connection with that action payments were made properly to Miller in accordance with a resolution approved by the county and that his bills were forwarded to the BCC and approved on a consent agenda in public session each month.
Court proceedings against Walton County continued, with Goodman identifying the issue remaining as two legal services contracts signed with Miller subsequent to the Dec. 22, 2009 BCC action. These were contracts between Lynn Hoshihara, interim county attorney at the time, and Miller, which were signed on June 3, 2010 and Oct. 21, 2010. On Sept. 30, 2015, Santa Rosa County Circuit Court Judge John F. Simon, who succeeded Goodman in presiding over the case, ruled that neither those contracts nor the hiring of Miller in connection with the two contracts “were discussed, voted on or otherwise approved at a meeting open to the public and with notice provided and minutes taken.”
On Dec. 28, 2015, Simon found that Harris was entitled to “recover her reasonably incurred attorney’s fees and costs” from the county in connection with the latter ruling in favor of Harris.
At the Dec. 27 BCC meeting, Davis reported that the proposed attorney and court cost amount had been agreed to at a December 2016 hearing, after Harris’ attorney Matt Gaetz had initially sought a total of $235,531.84 for her fees and costs, later adjusting that to $180,200, and the two attorneys subsequently stepped outside to talk, arriving at the $175,000 total.
The $175,000 payment was approved in a 3-1 BCC vote at the Dec. 27 meeting, on a motion by Anderson and with BCC Chair Cecilia Jones voting no.
Later during the course of the meeting, Harris came forward to address the commissioners. She was critical of the amounts that the county had spent in connection with her lawsuit and said that an apology rather than of payment of her legal fees would have been acceptable to her. She charged that that a vendetta was in existence against her.
Jones denied any vendetta on her part. “I voted my conscience,” she said of her vote to deny the payment. She told Harris to have a Happy New Year.
“Oh, I will,” Harris responded.