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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County/Lake City

Wendell Johnson's IDP Blanche Legacy Project:
Top Secret Before it Should Have Been

The Timing of the Confidentiality Agreement is something for the State Attorney

LAKE CITY, FL – City Manager Wendell Johnson is not bashful about doing end runs around Florida's Sunshine and Public Record laws. He has been working since July with the City Council to secure his legacy with the $20,000,000 Blanche Renovation Project. Details have been kept under wraps.

On July 14, 2015, Mr. Johnson said, "The development agreement has been prepared." On July 15, your reporter requested the Development Agreement from City Manager Johnson and City Attorney, Herbert Darby.

Links to Blanche stories are here.

Based on a letter dated July 20, 2015, from Integrity Development Partners and a three day old company, Blanche Hotel Redevelopment, LLC, the Development Agreement was not provided even though the City Manager said, "The Development Agreement" has been prepared."

July 14, 2015, City Manager Johnson:
"The Development Agreement has been prepared."

On July 14, 2015, City Manager Johnson almost got away without mentioning the lingering Blanche Hotel Redevelopment Project. As the evening's Community Redevelopment Advisory Committee (CRAC) meeting was about to conclude, the Director of the Chamber of Commerce, Dennille Decker, brought up the Blanche. She asked, "On the Blanche Project, have we missed that deadline? (She questioned the “grant-cycle year”).

City Manager Johnson replied, "The Blanche?"

City Councilwoman Melinda Moses added, "It was the tax certificate or something."

City Manager Johnson responded:

That’s all been taken care of. The Blanche tax certificate was auctioned with no takers. The doc stamps were paid by -- they were paid -- the U.S. Bank took ownership and there is a contract to U.S. Bank to buy that hotel over there at a time when the City enters into the Development Agreement. That's when closing will be carried out -- at a price of $150,000.

The Development Agreement has been prepared and will be submitted to the City's Attorney's office tomorrow for his consideration and review. Josh [Craps – sitting in for Mr. Darby], if you let Mr. Darby know that -- I just finalized that today and haven't had a chance to give him a heads up, but that will be up to the City Attorney to review and finalize that document for the consideration of the Council. (emphasis added)

July 15, 2015: the Public Record Request

On July 15, 2015, your reporter filed a public record request with City Manager Johnson and the City Clerk (08:46am), and City Attorney, Herbert Darby (09:18am)

The request was simple:

Background:  During the 7/14/2015 CRAC meeting Mr. Johnson announced that the development agreement for the Blanche "has been prepared." Pursuant to the public record law of Florida I am requesting the following: The Development Agreement that Mr. Johnson mentioned last night at the CRAC.

7/15/2015, 10:18 am, the City Clerk responds:”Good morning. The City has no records relating to this request. Thanks and have a great day."

7/15/2015, 04:45 pm: The Second Request

Your reporter filed a second request with the City Manager and the City Attorney:

a) Background:  During the 7/14/2015 CRAC meeting Mr. Johnson announced that the development agreement for the Blanche "has been prepared."

b) Earlier today the City responded in relevant part: The City has no records relating to this request. Thanks and have a great day.

c) Considering the substance of the request and Mr. Johnson's remarks last night it is not clear how the City could have no records relating to this request. (emphasis added)

d) Public records requests latch at the time of the request. Below is a new  request PRR_15_0715c_IDP-Development-Agreement

PRR_15_0715c_IDP-Development-Agreement
Pursuant to the public record law of Florida I am requesting the following:   The Development Agreement that Mr. Johnson mentioned last night at the CRAC.

7/15/2015, 04:56 pm

At 04:56 pm the Deputy City Clerk, Katy McCrary responded: Good afternoon Stew, This request has been processed in accordance with City policy and assigned to Public Records Request number PR-15-287. I will be in contact as soon as I receive a response. Have a great day.

7/20/2015, 05:05 pm: Five Days Later

Deputy Clerk McCrary responds:  Good afternoon Stew, The records relating to Public Records Request PR-15-287 are exempt from release pursuant to Florida Statute 288.075(2)(a)1.  PR-15-287: Requesting The Development Agreement that Mr. Johnson mentioned last night (7/14/15) at the CRAC meeting.  Have a great day.

7/21/2015: Integrity's Request for Confidentiality

Early, on July 21, your reporter called Deputy Clerk McCrary and requested the letter requesting the confidentiality. At 11:28 am, Ms. McCrary responded: Good morning Stew, I have processed your Public Records Request in accordance with City policy and assigned it to PR-15-297. PR-15-297: Requesting a copy of the letter from IDP that requested confidentiality (reference to Florida Statute 288.075(2)(a)1 exemption that was cited for PR-15-287)  Have a great day.

At 02:51 pm, Ms. McCrary forwarded Integrity's Letter Requesting Exemption.

The Florida Statute: It is in plain English

288.075(2)(a)1 Confidentiality of records.

If a private corporation, partnership, or person requests in writing before an economic incentive agreement is signed that an economic development agency maintain the confidentiality of information concerning plans, intentions, or interests of such private corporation, partnership, or person to locate, relocate, or expand any of its business activities in this state, the information is confidential and exempt from s. 119.07(1) and s. 24(a), Art. I of the State Constitution for 12 months after the date an economic development agency receives a request for confidentiality or until the information is otherwise disclosed, whichever occurs first. (emphasis added)

Integrity & Lake City: Working Together
Where is the State Attorney?

The Integrity Letter is clear. They requested confidentiality on July 20. The Observer requested the "prepared agreement" on July 15. City Manager Johnson announced that it was prepared on July 14.

On July 14, City Manager Johnson claimed that there were no records of correspondence in the City between IDP (Integrity) and the City from May 8, 2015 until July 14, 2015.

Epilogue:

If the City and the developer did not correspond before July 15, as is the City Manager's claim, how did they modify and receive the agreement which was headed to the City's Attorney's office on July 15?

Tonight, the City, after mostly working under the cover of darkness from the inception of the Wendell Johnson Legacy Project, or the Blanche Hotel Project, or the Integrity Development Partners Project, has sprung upon the public a 12th hour vote to approve an unseen agreement that will put the City of Lake City, that is its residents and businesses, on the hook for millions of dollars.

Soon Wendell Johnson will be out of here. His secret Blanche Legacy Project, if approved tonight, will be here for a long-long time.

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The CRA Master Plan is available here. (25Mb)