POLK COUNTY'S OWN VERSION OF "MEMOGATE"
As we all know by now, Florida's freshman U.S. Senator has earned some harsh criticism --- well earned, IMHO --- for his staff member's memo about how the unfortunate Terri Schiavo situation could mean for the Republican's politically if they could get Congress involved...and for his giving the memo, apparantly sight unseen, to a Democratic collegue believing it was a memo of "talking points".
Polk County has it's own version of "memogate", and proves just how cozy our county commissioners are with developers to the detriment of her citizens.
Don Smith owns a ten acre parcel of land on Snively Avenue in Eloise, an unincorporated area just south of Winter Haven. He wants to change the land use designation for his parcel from residential to industrial over the objections of the county-appointed Eloise Community Redevelopment Agency. The parcel is currently used for a trucking terminal and repair shop, as it's zoning was grandfathered for industrial use. That changed when the county updated it's growth management plan over a decade ago.
The CRA wants to see the area developed for residential use, primarily to protect the area surrounding Snively Elementary School. The county's own Comprehensive Plan reads:
"Industrial districts shall be separated significant distances from schools and developed residential areas."
County Attorney Joe Jarret had written commissioners a "confidential" memo on January 27, a week before the hearing raising questions over approving the land use designation change, stating that the CRA would likely prevail an any lawsuit to challenge a commission approval.
Jarret's "confidential" memo ended up in the hands of Pete Bell, Smith's planning consultant. Bell said in a deposition that he heard of the memo by Commissioner Paul Senft during a telephone call. Bell went to the Auburndale office of another commissioner, BOCC Chairman Jack Myers, and asked for a copy of the memo. Myers claims he had not seen the memo, but called the commission office in Bartow and had the memo faxed to him...and gave it, without even reading it, to the planning consultant.
By the way, the County Commission sided with the developer in it's hearing on the afternoon of February 2 (pdf format; pages 15-19).
Eloise CRA chairman Bruce Bachman said he was not even aware of the memo until this situation became public knowledge. He and CRA vice chairman Johnny Brooks are considering asking for the organization's approval for filing an ethics complaint against the two commissioners, as State Attorney Jerry Hill has cleared them of any criminal wrongdoing. The CRA has also appealed the decision to an administrative law judge, who will rule in 30 to 60 days.
The decision by commissioners Senft and Myers to release the memo to the developers' consultant placed the CRA at a serious disadvantage a week before the hearing, and taints the ultimate decision. It also heightens the perception by many citizens across the county that our commissioners are too cozy with developers, often to the detriment of residents. The Lakeland Ledger was correct in slamming this disgraceful detriment of duty yesterday in it's editorial. It is, indeed, "A Broken Confidence".