Long Bar Pointe project in Bradenton raises conflict-of-interest questions

skennedy@bradenton.comAugust 4, 2013 

MANATEE -- Questions have arisen over what opponents contend are glaring conflicts of interest among the parties making decisions about the Long Bar Pointe project in southwest Manatee County.

Officials are considering whether zoning changes and altered countywide environmental regulations should be allowed for the proposed "coastal resort" development.

Among the issues raised:

• Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac's employment as a consultant for developer Larry Lieberman before her election to the commission.

• Campaign contributions from developers Carlos Beruff and Lieberman and affiliated companies of $42,500 to six of the seven Manatee County commissioners who will decide whether approvals should be granted for the project.

• Business relationships between Beruff and Manatee County Planning Commission 1st Vice Chairman David Wick.

• Beruff's position as chair of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, an agency that must grant a permit for the project to go forward.

Manatee County Attorney Mickey Palmer has concluded that Benac has no conflict, nor do any of the others who have accepted campaign contributions from the developers, he wrote in a July 26 memo to county commissioners.

Benac left employment as a land planner well before assuming her post as a county commissioner, wrote Palmer.

Nor does she have ownership interest in any engineering or land planning firm, he wrote.

The law requires "a current relationship between the Commissioner and the affected persons or entities," he wrote. "In the absence of a current relationship, there is no voting conflict."

Palmer added: "Moreover, in the absence of a statutory voting conflict, a Commissioner is not allowed to abstain from voting on moral or ethical grounds."

A conflict of interest has not occurred, Palmer concluded, even if six of the seven county commissioners have accepted campaign contributions from developers and their affiliates.

He relied on Florida statutes governing the Code of Ethics for Public Officers and on a formal opinion issued more than 37 years ago by the Florida Commission on Ethics.

"If voting conflicts were actually present, then six Commissioners would be required to abstain from voting, and the Board would be unable to consider or act upon the Long Bar land use applications," Palmer wrote.

"The law does not envision or sanction such an absurd result."

Commissioner Michael Gallen was the sole member of the board who did not receive campaign contributions from the developers.

In Wick's case, however, Palmer could not yet make a judgment on whether a conflict might exist. But in the end, he said, it won't matter in the decision-making vote to be taken by county commissioners, since the planning commission is simply an advisory board and not a decision-making body.

Wick is Beruff's longtime friend and occasional money-lender, and is also the former president of Medallion Home, the development company Beruff founded and continues to run, Wick said.

The two are also officers in an existing company, SR 44, LC, as Wick reported in a disclosure form for the county.

Wick told the Herald he has a clear conscience."If I've loaned him money, I recuse myself; he does pay me much better money than anything I can get on the street," Wick said.

He said he routinely checks with county attorneys to decide where to draw the line on voting or abstaining.

"If I put anything in it, I immediately tell everybody," said Wick, referring to his money-lending arrangements with Beruff.

As a member of the advisory county planning commission, Wick has already voted this year in favor of Comprehensive Plan changes that Beruff and Lieberman hope county commissioners, who make the final decision, also will approve.

Palmer has asked for more information from Wick.

"The analysis relative to Mr. Wick, however, focuses on whether he and the developer in question are 'business associates' as that term is narrowly defined in the statutes," wrote Palmer.

"Since Mr. Wick is still in the process of examining (at my request) selected documentation relative to his business dealings, I am unable to opine at this time on any voting conflict that may have been faced by Mr. Wick," Palmer also wrote.

As for Beruff's position as chairman on the Swiftmud board, the agency's external affairs manager, Terri Behling, wrote in an e-mail message Friday:

"Our policy on the Governing Board refers to state statute 112.3143 that covers voting conflicts." That statute applies to "public officers," defined as any person elected or appointed to hold office in any agency, including any person serving on an advisory body.

"We do not currently have an application under review for this project, however, Mr. Beruff has indicated he is going to request that the permit be reviewed by DEP," the state Department of Environmental Protection, Behling wrote.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter@sarawrites.

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