Wednesday, August 21, 2019

St. Augustine Port, Waterway and Beach District Faces Reforms, AG Opinion, Complaints, Concerns

  • The long-languid St. Augustine Port, Waterway and Beach District is coming to life, thanks to new Commissioners Sandra Flowers and Matthew Brown, who defeated two incumbents in 2018.  

For decades, the Port District saw its role as bringing large ceremonial checks to City Commission meetings, with no oversight, to laughs about "thank you for bringing us money."  Even local historians and boat owners are unaware of the Port District, its history or function.  Its office location was secret.  Its meetings were poorly attended.

At its August 20, 2019 meeting, the  five elected members of the St. Augustine Port, Waterway and Beach District heard City of St. Augustine General Services Director James Piggott admit that then City does no law enforcement on water pollution of our San Sebastian River by some seven (7) marinas with live-aboard residents and no pumpout facilities.  Commissioners Sandra Flowers and Christopher Way want to see action taken --- existing laws must be enforced and more law enforcement is required.

St. Augustine Port, Waterway and Beach District learned from Army Corps of Engineers representatives that it could easily obtain Army Corps help and funds for dredging, flood control and environmental remediation. The Commissioners unanimously approved Commissioner Flower's motion to express interest in such Corps-funded projects for Summer Haven River and San Sebastian River.

Commissioner Christopher Way noted that the 2008 breach that silted up the Summer Haven River could easily have been fixed early on, with a day or two of work.  Instead, delays on remediating and attempting to "fix" the Summer Haven River have consumed  millions of dollars in state funds, with little or no oversight.

Has the money been squandered on contractors?  We don't know yet.

But a subcontractor's possibly illegal actions were documented in videos and still photos taken by beloved local surfer and photojournalist Walter Coker, who documented TURNBULL ENVIRONMENTAL firm employees taking sand muck from the San Sebastian River, moving it across marked sand dunes, and putting it under two homes on the beach.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is investigating Commissioner Flowers' complaint to the National Response Center about TURNBULL.

And the District Commissioners unanimously agreed to Commissioners request to file an insurance claim with TURNBULL ENVIRONMENTAL over questionable and incomplete dredging work.  At a July special meeting TURNBULL refused to answer questions, on advice of its legal counsel.

The St. Augustine Port, Waterway and Beach District Board is unique.

There are NO environmental scientists on staff or on the Board.

Its website contains incomplete and out of date information.

The Board voted against Commissioner Sandra Flowers' motion to seek an expert to evaluate the Summer Haven Project, without explanation.  Wonder why?  She will be back.

So will Summer Haven supporters, who helped persuade Senator Travis Hutson to fund Summer Haven River restoration (at the same time when Governor Richard Lynn Scott vetoed urgently needed funding for West Augustine sewers, subject of a complaint I filed with the EPA Office for External (sic) Civil Rights against Scott.  During the meeting, one of them, Jared Ellis, read a statement and complained about Commissioner Flowers criticizing him in a Facebook comment on a St. Augustine Record article by Sheldon Gardner.  He said he would sue if he were litigious, but would not do so; Commissioner Flowers invited him to sue, knowing nothing she said was defamatory under Supreme Court precedents. (The only thing everyone agreed on was that the St. Augustine Record is a horribly inept newspaper, with at least one Commissioner saying that it knowingly prints untruths and will not talk to its reporter.)

Former Commissioner Jay Bliss, who defeated Carl Blow and was elected in 2010, praised Commissioner Sandy Flowers' "fire in the belly" for doing her job without fear or favor.  (Her bio on the Port District's website consists of one word: "Reformer."

At the end of the meeting, a local Realtor and cognitive miser, a stodgy enemy of reform, a part of the local right-wing Republican Establishment, Commissioner Thomas Rivers, petulantly patronized Commissioner Flowers, like a crackpot of a certain age might be expected to do, interrupting her and taking potshots.

Tedious tired termagant Thomas Rivers can't stand criticism.

Trump-supporting Port Commissioner Rivers questioned Commissioner Flowers' civility.

As The New Yorker cartoon. says, "That dawg won 't hunt."

An angry Commissioner Rivers lectured  he served on the school board, which sent new members to training in Tallahassee as to how to get along with fellow board members.  Sorry, Mr. Rivers, you're a male chauvinist, freighted with sexism and misogyny.

Chaired by used car salesman Barry Benjamin, the District has no employees, only contractors.  While some government agencies hire a mess of contractors, this is the first I've ever experienced with NO employees at all, not even a manager or secretary.  The result appears to be more of the same St. Augustine sleaze -- waste, frauds, abuse, misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance, flummery, dupery and nincompoopery.

Chairman Benjamin and three (3) fellow board members -- Thomas Rivers, Christopher Way and Matthew Brown, all refuse to get bonds, and were egged on by the unscholarly lawyer, JAMES BEDSLOE.

Only Commissioner Flowers has obtained the legally required bond.   Commissioner Flowers filed a lawsuit on the issue, pro se, the first iteration was dismissed for lack of standing, without prejudice, so it could be refiled.

Chairman Benjamin has been the District's liaison to the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) and the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Researchn Reserve for nineteen years, since 2000.  It's time for a change.

Chairman Benjamin claims to be a St. Johns County Code Enforcement official, but the County has no records reflecting that.

Chairman Benjamin claims on his Linked-In profile to be a yacht broker but his Florida yacht broker license expired in 2013, after several boat owner  complaints alleging shady dealings were filed with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Query: Is Barry Benjamin unable to obtain as bond? Is that why he and three other board members refuse to obtain bonds, on advice of counsel JAMES BEDSOLE?

The Port District's attorney, JAMES  BEDSOLE. has worked without a contract for ten years, while three other principal  government lawyer in St. Johns County has contracts, including St. Johns County Attorney Patrick Francis McCormack, St. Augustine City Attorney Isabelle Christine Lopez, and St. Augustine Beach City Attorney James Patrick Wilson.

Port District counsel BEDSOLE has a backward-bending labor supply curve and an unscholarly, uncouth hierarchical manner -- he issues oral ukases instead of doing legal research.  This slithery self-styled specialist in probate law was recommended for the lucrative Port District gig in 2009 by none other than conflicted longtime local government and developer lawyer GEOFFREY DOBSON. (DOBSON and partner RONALD WAYNE BROWN once represented both the City of St. Augustine and the late  Pierre Thompson when the latter's land along SR 312 was annexed into the City, including alleged dumping sites on which condos and commercial structures were built.  Ethically-impaired DOBSON rubber-stamped an illegal December 2006 no-bid contract for purchase of a $1.8 million luxury Bell Jet helicopter for the Anastasia Mosquito Control District of St. Johns County -- an illegal deal rescinded when AMCD finally got competent legal advice after nine (9) months of struggle by activists, supporting the efforts of AMCD Commissioners Jeanne Moeller and John Sundeman).

The Port District's lawyer,  JAMES BEDSOLE, and its Secretary-Treasurer, ELYSE KEMPER, are "independent contractors," thus exempt from all Florida ethics laws, F.S. 112, and with no withholding of federal taxes.  (The USDOL Wage-Hour Division has jurisdiction of any underpayments.  IRS investigates misclassification of employees as independent contractors.  The District or KEMPER may end up owing back taxes.)

Annual audits of the Port District for years have pointed out that the Secretary-Treasurer has a conflict of interest, writing checks, making purchasing decisions and having control over physical assets -- jobs that the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) requires be separate.  Concerns about conflict of interest have ever been resolved.

At the meeting, BEDSOLE and KEMPER were angry, barking and interrupting when Port Commissioner Sandra Flowers aired her forthcoming letter to the State Attorney General, requesting opinions on some ten issues. on which District lawyer JAMES BEDSOLE gave a testy one-liners, unadorned by legal research.

The pair of surly sibilant contractors also interrupted me during public comment, behaving uncivilly.  I asked Chairman Barry Benjamin to gavel them out of order. He did not.

When Commissioner Matthew Brown proposed better public notice of District meetings, a robotic KEMPER popped off that District meetings are "advertised" in the newspaper.  There will be a request to St. Augustine Beach City Hall to use its portable sign to notify the public of meetings.

There was no discussion of KEMPER's failure and refusal to provide agenda packets on the Port District's website.

Future outbursts may be broadcast on television, if the District opts to contract with the City of St. Augustine Beach for coverage of its meetings with SAB's tv system.  Angry ELYSE KEMPER said, without seeking recognition, that

The Port District's contract with its longtime engineering firm, TAYLOR ENGINEERING, expired last year.   After 29 years, TAYLOR ENGINEERING seems to be running the show, without any government employee supervising its work on its sweetheart contract, which is expired.

"Hired" without a proper EEO search, ELYSE KEMPER, the Port District's Secretary-Treasurer, supposedly an "independent contractor," has no contract.  Neither does JAMES BEDSOLE, the Port District's lawyer, who has no retainer agreement.  He's encumbered the position of attorney for the District for ten years, duked into the position without any EEO search or Florida Bar Journal advertising.

JAMES BEDSOLE, a/k/a "BEDSLOW," the District's snooty lawyer, has never returned my telephone calls since July 17.  Wonder why?

By July 18, 2019 e-mail, the District's no-contract Secretary-Treasurer, ELYSE KEMPER, curtly demanded $50/hour to watch me read documents, never apologizing when I pointed out that this was illegal under a 2016 Florida Supreme Court decision.   (Commissioner Flowers has graciously agreed to babysit me whenever I read documents in the District's office in Room 241 of St. Augustine City Hall).

ELYSE KEMPER barked at audience members, including me, demanding that we sign in on a sign-in sheet.  I questioned this requirement as violative of the First Amendment, as it has a chilling effect on citizens attending meetings.  "But I'll humor you," I told her.  The sight of a line of grown adults meekly signing in because some no-contract "independent contractor" barks orders was unique.  No other local government agency requires citizens to sign in (although on occasion for HUD CDBG meetings, citizens are respectfully requested to sign in, at their option).  This was no request.  This was a demand.

ELYSE KEMPER has not done the job required by Florida Open Records law, so the Port District Board voted to authorize $4000 to hire an archivist with no discussion on a Request for Proposals or Request for Bid.  The reason -- someone has filed "dozens" of Open. Records requests, inundating the District, supposedly costing "thousands" of dollars.  Under Florida Open Records law, the District's records should nave been digitized and available on the Internet 20 years ago.

The Port District's maladroit no-contract lawyer, expired-contract engineer and no-contract secretary need to be replaced.


There needs to be a proper EEO search for competent counsel, actual staff person(s), and an environmental and legal audit of possible overbilling and professional malpractice.

The unsupervised, mismanaged, ill-conceived $ummer Haven River Project has cost millions over the years, funded from multiple sources, including some $2.88 million in Florida government funds laundered through this small special taxing district.

As they say in East Tennessee, this Port District "bears watchin'."

Our port, waterway and beaches need protection.  They especially need protection from an inept non-regulatory regulatory body that spends money on no-contract contractors with questionable results, while eschewing questions and accountability.

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