Fred Tricker remains on planning commission in wake of 2+-hour public hearing

By DOTTY NIST

South Walton County resident Fred Tricker will continue to serve on the Walton County Planning Commission following a public hearing over two hours in length, at which the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) considered removing him for cause from the District 1 commissioner appointee seat on the advisory board.

The officials met at the Walton County Courthouse.

The public hearing to consider removal of a planning commissioner may have been a first for Walton County. It had been scheduled at the request of Walton County District 1 Commissioner Boots McCormick, who had appointed Tricker to the seat in July 2021 for a term extending to Jan. 31, 2025.

Tricker had declined to resign from the seat when in February 2024 McCormick had proposed removing him to be replaced for the remainder of the term. The Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) requires a public hearing for removal of a planning commissioner from a seat on the volunteer board.

Charges facing Tricker

McCormick had provided a list of formal charges as reasons for his request for Tricker’s removal. In the first item on the list, McCormick stated that, while Tricker, a board member of the South Walton Community Council (SWCC), had assured him at the time of his appointment that he would be fair and impartial in his decisions on the planning commission, Tricker had since “demonstrated that he is unable or unwilling to separate his personal opinions and associations from his duties as a member of the Planning Commission.”

In addition, McCormick took issue that at a planning commission meeting on Feb. 8, Tricker had “failed to disclose” that he was a member/board member of the SWCC, that prior to that meeting he had discussed a developer agreement on the meeting agenda with others, and that he had failed to recuse himself from voting on the amendment, which he had voted against.

Another charge was that a question asked by Tricker at the latter meeting during consideration of the amendment evidenced that he had not been following/paying attention to a 15-20 minute discussion on the agenda item.

McCormick complained, as well, that Tricker had voted against another request, a rezoning amendment, at the same meeting, giving his reason as the request “not meeting sewer code, even when Planning Staff stated code was met.”

Also noted in the charges was Tricker’s appearance before the BCC on Nov. 28, 2023, at a quasi-judicial hearing on the proposed Moxy Grand Boulevard hotel/retail project. According to the charges, Tricker had spoken as a witness “which resulted as a personal opinion without expert evidence against the project that the Planning Commission had approved.” This appearance and remarks by Tricker were described in the charges as “poor judgment.”

McCormick had concluded his notice of formal charge with the statement, “Fred Tricker’s actions are putting me and the entire Board of County Commissioners in a difficult position…I hereby request to have Fred Tricker removed from the Walton County Planning Commission immediately due to his actions being a liability to the Board of County Commissioners and myself personally.”

Written response to charges

In a written response by Tricker furnished by his attorney, William R. Sickler, McCormick’s charges were described as ‘baseless” and providing no rationale for removal of Tricker.

It was noted that Tricker’s relationship to the SWCC had been well known when he was asked to serve on the planning commission, and exception was taken to the implication that his role on the SWCC was “coloring his judgment.” 

Sickler contended that the motivation for Tricker’s decisions was “ideological, not financial.”

“He places significant importance on having regard for the rights of individual citizens,” the response continued, “and their entitlement to health, safety, and welfare accorded to them by the Comprehensive Plan. Quality of life issues have always been important to him and that is why he sits on the SWCC board and that is why he agreed to serve on the Planning Commission.”

Sickler also observed that all members of the planning commission bring with them their own life experience and views, adding that unfortunately any view “which runs afoul to a developer’s request” is somehow seen as biased rather than principled.

In the response, Sickler disagreed with McCormick’s position on Tricker’s remarks before the BCC at the Moxy Grand Boulevard hearing, observing that Tricker had stated at that time that he was not providing expert testimony.

It was also questioned whether any prohibition exists on appearance of a planning commissioner as a witness on a planning issue. “On the contrary,” Sickler wrote, “state statutes protect the rights of citizens to voice their opinions at public hearings.” He added that Tricker’s comments appeared to have been well received by the commission, with District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell even saying that he was in agreement with the remarks.

The criticism of Tricker for “purported failure to disclose his involvement with the SWCC” was countered with the observation that this involvement has been well-known in the community for years. It was also pointed out that the developer agreement referenced in the charges had been a legislative rather than quasi-judicial agenda item with no associated restriction on discussion with other parties and no requirement for disclosure of any such discussions. Therefore, it was argued, there had been no violation in connection with discussion of the item with other parties.

While not acknowledging on Tricker’s behalf that the disputed question regarding the amendment item took place, Sickler contended that questions of this nature are asked “all the time” during meetings by participants who need clarification that they fully understand issues.

Addressing Tricker’s “no” vote on the rezoning amendment contrary to planning staff’s assurance that sewer requirement were met, Sickler maintained that planning commissioners are not bound by planning department positions, noting that Tricker believes that “a rigorous debate is beneficial to the process.”

In Tricker’s defense, it was also pointed out that his interpretation on the rezoning amendment had later been deemed correct and that the application was planned to be re-submitted for a different requested land use classification and zoning district.

Public hearing

McCormick spoke first at the public hearing to consider Tricker’s removal. He emphasized that Tricker had been his appointee and maintained that Tricker’s actions as a board member “reflect on” him as a commissioner and on the BCC.

“This is not a situation where the public gets to make the decision,” he said of the removal being considered.

McCormick observed that the other commissioners were either going to agree with him or not, and that the only issue for him was, “I do not want Mr. Tricker representing my name and my district.”

McCormick said he had been uncomfortable with Tricker coming before the BCC and presenting information at the hearing on the Moxy project. He added that some of Tricker’s actions had made him question whether his decisions on projects coming before the planning commission were based on the merits of the projects.

McCormick said that after Tricker’s refusal to recuse himself at the Feb. 8 planning commission meeting after having discussed an amendment before the meeting with an entity he was involved with, had caused him, McCormick, to question, “are you calling the shots fair or not?”

It was at that time, McCormick recalled, that he had requested Tricker’s removal and his immediate suspension, although the latter had not been supported by the other commission members.

McCormick also criticized remarks by Tricker at the March 14 planning commission meeting to the effect that the planning director’s interpretation for classification of requests as legislative versus quasi-judicial was the correct one whereas legal counsel’s interpretation was incorrect. “What I heard was you don’t have to listen to the county attorney,” McCormick summarized. He viewed this as unacceptable.

Tricker’s remarks to BCC

Addressing the BCC, Tricker recalled that initially upon being asked by McCormick to serve in the planning commission seat, he had “turned the job down.” He said that later he had agreed to serve for a maximum of three months while he sought someone to replace him.

Tricker said he had “stuck it out” on the planning commission because since his appointment he had come to the realization that the planning commission is designated as the local planning agency and as such has enormous responsibilities that it has not been fulfilling. He explained that the planning commission is empowered to be “the authority” for the Walton County Comprehensive Plan (CP) and Land Development Code (LDC) to determine what changes are needed.

“You need to have a planning commission that’s independent, that can challenge…” Tricker said, explaining, “if we see something that’s wrong, we have an obligation to speak out about it, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Tricker mentioned an ethics complaint that had been filed against him by a local attorney, saying that he views this as an unproven and frivolous complaint that he takes very seriously. He spoke of his job experience as a professional engineer, including in connection with Saudi oil supply and distribution and for a defense contractor in secure facilities. He emphasized that there is a code of ethics associated with professional work of this nature that he never violated.

In response to a question, Tricker said he was not advocating that any planning commissioner decide on any project or application based on what “the code should be,” but only what the current code says. However he said he did have strong feelings on what the code should be.

“I believe in Walton County. I’m trying to do what’s right for Walton County, and I have no other intent in mind here,” Tricker said, thanking the commissioners for the opportunity to speak.

Motion for removal, discussion and public comment

While thanking Tricker for his service, McCormick made a motion for his removal from the planning commission, ba

sed on the written charges that he had presented.

District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell seconded the motion for discussion.

There was public comment by 11 members of the public in attendance, with all but one speaking in support of Tricker remaining on the planning commission.

Former Planning Commissioner Dan Cosson called Tricker “the voice of reason for the people.”

“You might as well bring Mother Teresa up here on trial…he’s the only one standing up for us,” Cosson added.

“The proceedings today unjustly tarnish Fred’s reputation, affecting not only him but his family and friends;” Todd Roark commented, “the charges appear frivolous and orchestrated to discredit a man of integrity.”

“You’re going to punish Fred for telling you the process has been broken,” Alan Osborne charged.

Newly-appointed Planning Commissioner Forrest Buzan also advocated for keeping Tricker on the commission. “We need people like Fred,” he said, “who knows more about the rules, the statutes, than I’ll ever know.”

“We need more Freds, probably a whole commissioner of Freds,” Buzan added.

Buzan also disagreed with the interpretation that a planning commissioner necessarily represents the commissioner who had made the appointment once on the advisory board.

Suzanne Harris called Tricker “a hero to the people.”

“He knows what he’s talking about,” she said.

Lynne Edwards agreed with that assessment. “You’re going to take this hero to the people off this committee, and it’s a tragedy,” she told the commissioners.

John King spoke against Tricker remaining on the planning commission, saying, “I don’t think Fred is a good fit to this just simply because…you can’t be against everything and have a plan.”

District 4 Commissioner Donna Johns disagreed with Tricker being described as being “against everything,” saying that from her observations he bases his decisions on the CP and LDC and votes for requests that are reasonable and against those that are “out of bounds.”

“I have the utmost respect for you…” she told Tricker, “I know you’re doing what’s best for the people, and the people in this room are all speaking about how they care about you, and they know that you care.”

Addressing the BCC again, Tricker clarified that when he had spoken to the BCC about the Moxy proposal, he had not been presenting new information as had been stated—but had been bringing it to the BCC’s attention that new information had been presented by the applicants at that hearing that had not been presented when the project had been reviewed by the planning commission.

“It was new information the planning commission had never seen; it was only submitted the day before the BCC hearing,” he said.

District 3 Commissioner Brad Drake was of the opinion that the criticism of Tricker because of his relationship with a particular nonprofit organization (the SWCC) did not hold water since the First Amendment allows people to choose their friends and affiliation. He also pointed out that the acting county attorney, when asked, had given Tricker the go-ahead to speak at the Moxy project hearing before the BCC.

Drake noted that, while one member of the BCC (McCormick) was of the opinion that Tricker had done something that “stepped over the line,” he did not think, if so, that it would rise to the level to “render the death penalty” (removal).

“I would like to say that I find this entire exercise distasteful,” said District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell. He said, however, that he did believe that the five planning commissioners who are appointed by county commissioners do represent a district and a commissioner, and serve at the pleasure of that commissioner. While emphasizing his respect for Tricker, he said he would base his vote on the seat being the choice of the District 1 commissioner.

McCormick commented that his confidence in Tricker’s decisions was questionable, adding that Tricker’s decisions would determine “whether my name gets put on a lawsuit or not…”

Resolution of the hearing

McCormick remarked he had wanted to “show today” that he was not going to yield in standing by what he had previously said, and that he would not be intimidated by lawyers or by the public “on either side of the fence.” He said he believed he had accomplished those two things.

McCormick continued to say that he thought Tricker should be replaced.

However, he concluded by withdrawing his motion for Tricker’s removal “in a sense of fair play, and just mutual respect.”

BCC Chairman Tony Anderson then told Tricker, “You’re free to go, my friend,”

While observing that he and Tricker did not always agree, Anderson thanked him for his service on the planning commission. “We appreciate what you do,” he said.