In secret, behind locked gates, our Nation's Oldest City dumped a landfill in a lake (Old City Reservoir), while emitting sewage in our rivers and salt marsh. Organized citizens exposed and defeated pollution, racism and cronyism. We elected a new Mayor. We're transforming our City -- advanced citizenship. Ask questions. Make disclosures. Demand answers. Be involved. Expect democracy. Report and expose corruption. Smile! Help enact a St. Augustine National Park and Seashore. We shall overcome!
Thursday, January 24, 2019
I LOVE IRONY -- HERE'S A ROSE BETWEEN TWO THORNS -- St. Augustine's Own "Iron Lady," Reform Mayor Nancy Shaver between ex-Mayors LEN WEEKS and JOE BOLES
Mayor Nancy Shaver, center, earlier tonight at St. Augustine Art Association, between ex-Mayors LEN WEEKS and JOE BOLES, partners in no-bid below-market rate City lease exposed by this blog and Folio Weekly in 2014, leading to Mayor Shaver's election. (From Facebook)
From Folio Weekly, August 2014:
THE BLOGGER, THE LEASE AND THE ST. AUGUSTINE MAYOR'S RACE
An activist is raising hell about a lease agreement he says enriched the mayor at the public’s expense
ILLUSTRATION BY SHAN STUMPF
“I think people have a right to know how much they are making on the deal. I think the city has a duty to protect the taxpayers and the city, and we are being bamboozled by Boles and Weeks.””
“If I were the mayor, I would have sold out my interest once I became mayor.””
When a storm blows across Florida, it happens suddenly and violently. Dark clouds gather in the sky. The rain pours down in blinding sheets. Claps of thunder sound like cannon fire. It feels like the end of the world. When St. Augustine’s Ed Slavin takes on a fight, he comes on like a Florida thunderstorm. The only difference is that Florida thunderstorms start brutally and end quickly, while Slavin’s torrents seem unceasing.
The bespectacled St. Augustine blogger and activist dresses nattily in oxford shirts and khakis with a mad professor mind-of-its-own shock of gray-and-black hair hurtling about his head. Slavin possesses a brilliant mind, a finely calibrated sense of outrage, and the mental acumen to both thoroughly investigate and mightily agitate. His partner referred to him as “the pest that never rests” in a letter recommending Slavin for the University of Florida’s law school.
Slavin received his B.S. degree from the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He interned in the Washington, D.C., office of Ted Kennedy and at the U.S. Department of Labor. As the editor of the Appalachian Observer, he uncovered a massive cover-up by Union Carbide involving mercury poisoning in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He earned his law degree at Memphis State University and represented whistleblowers in landmark cases in Oak Ridge and Washington, D.C. He was disbarred in Tennessee in what he regards as retaliation, although he admits to calling an opposing lawyer a “redneck peckerwood,” and his disbarment involved charges that he harassed judges.
Neither that disbarment nor his relocation to St. Augustine in 2000 curbed Slavin’s crusading nature. He still slings arrows, does copious research, gathers records, wages public harangues, and knows how to layer hyperbole with exacting case law.
And he Just. Doesn’t. Stop.
Slavin’s current targets include St. Johns County Supervisor of Elections Vicky Oakes, for failing to provide early voting sites close to St. Augustine’s historic downtown; public officials whose publicly financed trips to promote St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary celebration in 2015 he thinks are a waste (his criticism led to cancellation of a $25,000 trip for commissioners in 2010); the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, for planning to demolish a 1926 Mediterranean revival building and put up a parking lot; the city’s dumping of solid waste and raw sewage in Lincolnville, the historic black neighborhood that encompasses much of The Ancient City’s southwestern peninsula; and the arrests and outlawing of street artists and musicians in the city’s historic district, as well as the continued employment and SWAT team promotion of a St. Johns County Sheriff’s deputy who was the subject of a blistering New York Times/Frontline investigation questioning whether he murdered his girlfriend (the official story is that she killed herself).
But most of all, the focus of Slavin’s ire of late has been St. Augustine Mayor Joseph L. Boles, who is seeking reelection this year. In Boles, Slavin sees remnants of the advantages that come with being part of the white hometown elite — vestiges of the good-ol’-boys network from which the city needs to untether.
Case in point: Slavin has hammered Boles repeatedly about the deal he and former mayor Len Weeks made 25 years ago with the St. Augustine City Commission to lease a prime piece of commercial real estate in the heart of the historic corridor. Slavin and others estimate that Weeks and Boles have netted between $2 million and $3 million in profit from the arrangement over the years. Slavin believes Boles and Weeks should end the lease, and turn over control of the property and, with it, the building they erected there. Boles and Weeks have both pointed out that is exactly what will happen when the lease permanently expires in 10 years. But Slavin says the city is losing money right now, money it could use for infrastructure, for historic preservation, for the city’s 450th birthday celebration, and the city’s mayor should act in the interest of the greater good, not personal self-interest.
“I think [Boles] ought to tear up the lease and let the city take back the property. Let the city make the profits instead of him and Weeks. I think of it as an exercise in fiduciary duty,” Slavin says. “I think people have a right to know how much they are making on the deal. I think the city has a duty to protect the taxpayers and the city, and we are being bamboozled by Boles and Weeks.”
The lease is perfectly legal — no one disputes that — but to Slavin, it’s an example of a public servant enriching himself at the public trough, something akin to the infamous deals worked out in the elder Mayor Daley’s Chicago. Ahead of next week’s mayoral primary election, Slavin’s banging that drum every chance he gets.
It’s about more than just the lease, really. Slavin sees Boles as a symbol of the old, connected and wrong; the lease symbolizes the way things used to be done between the families who had power and connections, a relic in a mayoral race that’s shaping up as a fight among a long-serving mayor and two relative newcomers.
St. Augustine historian David Nolan (father of former Folio Weekly staff writer Hamilton Nolan) agrees that Boles represents the homegrown St. Augustinian. For many people with roots in the city, he says, that’s a good thing.
“I think Joe is a candidate of the good ol’ boys,” Nolan says. “He’s certainly been around longer, and he is a lawyer and he has represented them and probably written the wills and done other legal work for all of the former mayors supporting him. He’s not as backwards as his predecessors, the ones who supported beating down Civil Rights demonstrators. But [the city’s old guard is] most comfortable with him.”
Joseph Boles has been the mayor of St. Augustine since 2006. (The city elects mayors to two-year terms.) His family moved here in 1967. In his first job as a St. Augustine teen, Boles dressed up as Ponce de Leon and rode a horse up and down St. George Street. If Boles wins, he will be the longest-serving mayor in the city’s 450-year history. But in this election, the hometown candidate faces a new guard of would-be change agents who say the city focuses too much on its tourists and not enough on its residents.
“The 450th is great, but what’s going to happen after 2015?” says Ken Bryan, one of Boles’ two challengers. “Meanwhile, the city is deteriorating.”
When the lease deal was struck in 1989, neither Boles nor Weeks had yet sought public office. Boles was an attorney specializing in estate planning and elder law. Weeks was a contractor and builder. In a city of just 11,575 people, they were both known quantities. Boles’ father was the director of the Lightner Museum. Weeks’ father ran Flagler Hospital.
The friends saw an opportunity on St. George Street. The state had been managing the city’s historic properties. When that ended, the state shut down all the public restrooms. The public and the St. Augustine Record railed about the lack of facilities for visitors to the tourism-fueled city. Boles and Weeks approached the city commission with a deal. If the city would lease them the vacant land at 81 St. George St., originally for $100 a month, they’d build a restaurant and other commercial space there — along with public restrooms. The city commission signed off. Boles, Weeks and another partner built and operated the Florida Cracker Café at the site, leased space there to Savannah Sweets, and included public restrooms behind the café as part of the construction.
Over the next 25 years, the rent for buildings along St. George Street skyrocketed; however, the 81 St. George St. lease amount stayed cheap. Weeks and Boles, who recently opted to renew the lease for another five years, pay $1,600 a month. The pair sold the Florida Cracker Café business for $150,000, but they still own the building it’s in and pay taxes on it. When the lease expires in 2024, the building Weeks and Boles built will become city property.
For that reason, Weeks and Boles see nothing wrong with the lease. In fact, they think they’re doing a public service.
“We were just normal guys who offered an opportunity to the city and the city thought it was a good deal for them,” Weeks says. “We took it on as entrepreneurs. I don’t feel guilty.”
Boles and Weeks have refused to disclose how much they earn leasing space to businesses at 81 St. George St. But by examining what the city of St. Augustine receives in rent for a comparable business, it’s possible to get a rough idea how much the Florida Cracker Café and Savannah Sweets might pay Boles and Weeks.
The Café del Hidalgo leases a 1,276-square-foot city-owned building in the historic district at 35 Hypolita St. for $6,596.55 a month, or $5.17 per square foot. If Boles and Weeks leased their 2,466-square-foot building at 81 St. George St. to the Florida Cracker Café and Savannah Sweets at the same rate the city leases space to Café del Hidalgo, they would charge a combined $12,749 a month. Subtract the restrooms’ square footage and Weeks and Boles would charge about $10,300 a month.
The $1,600 they pay the city is only for the land, however, not what they built there.
After a July 25 city commission meeting at which Slavin spoke out about the lease, Boles defended his arrangement with the city, explaining that he and his partners took a risk. When the lease ends, he added, the city will have an asset: “I make no apology for it. I think it is a win-win and the most perfect public-private partnership.” (Boles did not return calls for this story; instead he had Weeks call on his behalf.)
While Slavin often seems to be a crier in the wilderness — he and former mayor George Gardner are the lease’s fiercest critics — Bryan and fellow candidate Nancy Shaver have seized upon it, too. Bryan, who served on the St. Johns County Commission from 2008 to 2011, says that while the lease might not be illegal, it is unethical.
“If I were the mayor, I would have sold out my interest once I became mayor,” Bryan says. “It’s the only ethical thing to do to remove the appearance of impropriety; that is what one should be concerned about as an elected official.” He says he would seek an audit of all city leases and contracts if he wins the top city spot.
Shaver, a business management consultant who moved to St. Augustine about five years ago, says that the lease arrangement taints the mayor’s office. “I have no doubt that it is not illegal, but it is not something I would ever consider ethical or something that would be appropriate for an elected official in that position,” she says.
She’s especially critical of the fact that only Boles and Weeks — not the city — have the right to renew or terminate the agreement every five years until 2024. Shaver says that is “highly unusual, where the person who owns the property has no ability to terminate the lease.”
Still, despite his many criticisms, even Slavin credits Boles with helping to move St. Augustine into modernity. Boles, after all, commemorated the city’s violent and important role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, extended retirement benefits to domestic partners, and recognized the annual Gay Pride celebration. And as his supporters point out, he has — whether it’s for the city’s ultimate benefit or not — worked tirelessly on the upcoming 450th anniversary celebration. They argue that he deserves to see it through.
“Truthfully, I hope Joe wins,” Weeks says. “I think he has done a great job as the face of St. Augustine in his eight years as mayor. I think he deserves to be mayor for the 450th because he has done so much to promote the city and to promote the 450th. He’s worked really hard. The 450th will be something to remember.”
No matter what happens on Aug. 26 — if no candidate achieves a majority, the top two will go to a runoff on Nov. 4 — the election will be historic, and not just because of the upcoming anniversary or Boles’ longevity. If Shaver wins, she’ll be St. Augustine’s second female mayor. If Bryan wins, he’ll be St. Augustine’s first black mayor. A victory by either would mark a new era in St. Augustine politics.
Regardless, Boles and Weeks will keep that lease at 81 St. George St. for another decade.