Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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County 5: $107,000 in Water Lobbying Contracts Rubber Stamped for Nonexistent Group

The County 5 didn't ask one question as they approved a record consent agenda.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last Thursday's meeting of the Columbia County 5 set a record for funds approved on the County 5 Consent Agenda: $4,114,811. County Manager Ben Scott didn't offer one word of explanation. The 5's Chairman, Rusty DePratter, didn't ask for any. Neither did the other 4 of The 5. The Scott/DePratter team prepares and approves the agenda. Items 18 and 24 were for lobbying services for a County group that went missing 2 years ago. Those two items, for the nonexistent North Florida Water Working Group, cost Columbia County's taxpayers $107,000.

In the beginning, December 2011, water issues caught everyone's attention.


On December 1, 2011, reacting to the May 10, 2011 decision by the St. Johns River Water Management District to award a 20 year, 155,000,000 gal per day Consumptive Use Permit to the Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA), Columbia County staff organized the first meetings of what was to become FLOW, Florida Leaders Organized for Water.

As the months went by FLOW, now chaired by Columbia County's veteran County Commissioner Ronald Williams, saw attendance dwindle as the organization became directionless, could not agree on a strategic plan, and had no structure. (See: FL Leaders Organized for Water (FLOW): Once a torrent, now  a drip. Saturday meeting cancelled)

On October 1, 2013, Columbia County, under the guise of the FLOW replacement, the North Florida Water Working Group (NFWWG), entered into an agreement with Metz, Husband, Daughton PA (MHD), a Tallahassee law firm, to lobby for them. The cost: $80,400.

In addition, The County 5 was responsible for all customary costs: lobbyist registration, copying, messenger services, long distance phone calls, computer research services, and other out-of-pocket expenditures.

The 5 were paying $6,700 a month and did not require any kind of detailed billing or reports, other than for the customary costs.

On October 31, 2013, Sniffen & Spellman, PA (S&S), another lobbying firm, sent its contract to the County, which was approved the next week on November 7.

The contract states that Sniffen & Spellman are retained and employed by the NFWWG to serve as its attorneys at a rate of $200 hr.

For a time, S&S sent itemized bills with items like: "Prepare for and attend meetings with clients and members of legislature."

With whom S&S met is a mystery, but the invoice item was not a mystery: 10 hrs – $2,000.

Between October 31, 2013, and October 31, 2014, S&S billed the County $10,740 for its actual time spent, not including the customary expenses. For those 13 months S&S averaged $826 per month. (October 31, 2013 was the effective date of the contract. There was one day in that cycle).

On November 24, 2014, County Manager Dale Williams recommended changing the billing of Sniffen & Spellman to a flat monthly retainer of $2,250 per month, which does not include the customary expenses. The new contract gives S&S an increase of 172%. To the contrary, the County's calculations show a small savings.

County Water Policy

While the agreements with both MHD and S&S show they represent the NFWWG, it is clear that both the NFWWG and it predecessor FLOW are gone.

The County 5 has not publically discussed its water policy for over 2 years. It is not clear who is setting the County's water policy and who is deciding what the $107,000 buys for the County taxpayers.

November 19, 2015: Silence at The 5

Your reporter asked County Manager Ben Scott to explain Consent Agenda items 18 and 24, the respective renewing of the lobbying contracts of MHD ($80k) and S&S ($27k).

Mr. Scott explained item number 18: "I believe this is the third year that we have contracted with this firm and another firm to represent us on lobbying services related to the North Florida Water Working Group. They are currently lobbying on different projects for the County, including legislative issues and also funding issues related to water issues in the County, such as expanding our wastewater treatment plant in Ellisville."

Your reporter asked if there was any measure by which their success could be measured?

Mr. Scott ignored the question and began talking, "Number 24 is the same thing. This is another group. This is a smaller group that represents the County on the same type of issues. They're two different groups."

Your reporter asked again, "Is there any measure of success on that?"

Chairman DePratter replied, "We can get that answer to you. I don't think he has it in his pocket. We'll get it to you."

The Observer followed up, "But you guys are approving this tonight. You don't even know if they have done anything for us."

Chairman DePratter said, "OK. Thank you. Go ahead, Ben."

Mr. Scott continued, "Commissioner, they do send us reports. We actually meet with them face to face. We go to Tallahassee. We go meet with the legislators. We see what they are doing for us. Is there a specific report that they developed for us out of this? No there is not. At the end of the year, we have a meeting. We continue to discuss what they are going to continue to do for us. But currently we do not require them to submit to us a report saying, 'Here's what all we did for you this year.'"

Epilogue: The Reports

On Friday morning, Nov. 20, your reporter called the County and asked for the reports County Manager Scott said the firms prepared.

At 1:13 pm the County responded, "We do not get reports from them."

* Error in Sniffen's billing calculation was corrected

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