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Columbia County Florida: The $1,519,600 mitigation amnesia challenge

Florida's infamous Columbia County, long known throughout the state as the home of anything goes Good ol' Boy politics and corruption, out did themselves at last Thursday's May 19, 2011, County Commission meeting, when the Board suffered another one of its famous bouts of collective amnesia, this time to the tune of $1,519,600. The Board rallied around its chairman, Commissioner Jody DuPree, who after months of negotiating with the County Manager's best friend, claimed that he was not negotiating at all. (Observer Photo: Commissioner Jody DuPree)

A mitigation bank is used to restore, create, enhance, or preserve a wetland, stream, or habitat conservation area which offsets expected adverse impacts to similar nearby ecosystems. In other counties in Florida, the establishment of a mitigation bank would have been announced as good news. In Columbia County this was a secret.

This story begins on August 25, 2010, when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection published a Notice of Intent to issue a mitigation bank Permit to Bayfield Mitigation, owned by Sam Oosterhoudt, the County Manager’s best friend. Knowledgeable sources estimate that it took about a year for Mr. Oosterhoudt to assemble the paperwork to apply for the permit.

Nov. 4, 2010:  Three months after the permit application; before any approvals, Commission DuPree asks to negotiate

Three months after Mr. Oosterhoudt’s Bayfield mitigation bank went on the docket of the DEP, Commissioner DuPree had a topic called “Future Mitigation Options” added to the November 4, 2010 agenda.

The CM's best friend is Sam Oosterhoudt, who is Bayfield. Here he tries to convince the Board to buy his mitigation credits on May 19, 2011.

Commissioner DuPree put it this way during the Board’s conversation: "A mitigation bank has been terminated - ah - down 441 by Bayfield Mitigation bank. So what I would ask for the Board to do - ah, is allow the Board to seek an appraisal on the credit for the bank, so we can compare the credits to the bank (unintelligible) what it costs and allow the Board to have someone negotiate with Bayfield for purchase credits, at some future date."

Then Commissioner DuPree asked for a motion: “I would like members of the Board takin action (unintelligible) appraised and then to negotiate proper.” The motion passed unanimously.

January 20, 2011:  Two and a half months later, Com Williams and Com DuPree do a mitigation tag team walk-on

By this time, Commissioner DuPree had replaced Commissioner Williams as County Commission Chairman, opening a continuing dark chapter in Columbia County, by bringing an East German style of rule to Columbia County's homeless County Commission.

On January 20, 2011, Commissioner Williams, after the County Commission's evening business was concluded, brought up from out of the blue, the topic of mitigation.

Commissioner Williams said, "I asked that the Chair uh - uh - expedite the efforts to purchase - uh - mitigation property."

Commissioner DePratter asked, "We’re just gonna proceed in investigating this… is that what we just said about the mitigation [inaudible]?"

Chairman DuPree responded, "No.  Well I - well let me - The Board back - uh - what two months ago - three months ago?  Uh - the Board took an action to - uh - to begin to negotiate for mitigation credits for these purposes... So, I would imagine by the end of next week or the following week, negotiations will begin about the mitigation credits and then it’d be brought back to the Board for its disposition.

Commissioner DuPree then went on to explain about the Bayfield appraisals, none of which has ever seen the light of day.

Commissioner DePratter asked, "So all of that will be put back before the Board?"

Chairman DuPree responded, "Absolutely."

March 3, 2011:  County Manager Dale Williams does a resolution walk-on

Contrary to the County Charter, a resolution directed at the Water Management District was not available to the public before the meeting, nor was it on the evening's agenda. As usual, no one on the County Commission was surprised and the resolution passed unanimously.

Not one word was mentioned about the ongoing negotiations regarding the Bayfield mitigation bank or the continuing Columbia County battle with the Water Management District over the Home Depot Project mitigation .

March 8, 2011:  Half the Columbia County government makes a pilgrimage to the Water Management headquarters at Live Oak

On March 8, 2011, the County Manager, three County Commissioners and the County’s contract outside engineer, John Colson, made a pilgrimage to SRWMD headquarters.

According to the SRWMD minutes: CM Dale Williams gave a presentation on using the Bayfield mitigation bank for mitigating wetland impacts within the Cannon Creek-basin associated with the Home Depot storm water retrofit project. Columbia County Commissioner Ron Williams discussed the need for finding common ground regarding this issue and not taking legal action to avoid the cost of legal counsel.

Except in very limited circumstances, it is against the law to use mitigation credits outside of their basin of origin. Laws do not stand in the way of Columbia County's legendary County Commission.

March 17, 2011:  Nine days after the pilgrimage to the SRWMD hdq

March 17, 2011, the secretive and homeless Columbia County Commission meets publicly in a scheduled meeting. Not a single word is mentioned regarding the goings-on nine days before at the Water Management District, nor is one word mentioned regarding the Bayfield mitigation negotiations.

April 7, 2011:  Regularly scheduled County Commission meeting. Mitigation negotiation front and center.

County purchasing agent, Ben Scott, gave a PowerPoint presentation following the company line on mitigation, mitigation credits, and the Bayfield mitigation bank.

No appraisals were made available to the public regarding the value of the Bayfield mitigation credits. It is unknown if the appraisals were completed or if the County Commission was flying by the seat of its pants, or had worked out a deal before hand, something not new to Columbia County's notorious good ol' boys.

Mr. Scott explained, "I called some environmental service companies. They were very familiar with mitigation banks. That's what they do. Typically, they value them and then they market them for mitigation banks. And the values that they came up with were between $60,000 and $80,000 per UMAM credit."

Other than a PowerPoint presentation, there was no documentation to confirm Mr. Scott's purported numbers.

Someone forgot to tell Mr. Scott that in Columbia County, negotiating is fact finding.

Mr. Scott continued, explaining to the public that the Board had asked the Chairman [DuPree] to negotiate pricing for these credits, "to see what we could come up with."

Mr. Scott said, "Mr. DuPree negotiated for the initial 28 credits on a sliding scale... The average valuation of those [all 28] credits was $70,000, so he's negotiated a price well below the value of the credits. The savings on the negotiation between the value of the credits, 70,000 -- what Commissioner DuPree negotiated, would save the County $425,992."

In Columbia County, if one wants to keep their job, they tow the company line.

Commissioner DuPree gave the final word telling Mr. Scott, "Thank you Ben."

April 19, 2011:  Florida's DEP issued Bayfield its mitigation bank permit

The permit explained the mitigation credits this way:

The mitigation was assessed using the Uniform Mitigation Assessment Method (UMAM; Chapter 62-345, F.A.C.) as having a potential of 277.02 freshwater credits - 106.99 Hydric Flatwoods/Wet Prairie Credits (38.62%) and 170.03 Forested Wetland Credits (61.38%). (emphasis added)

That is a total of 554.04 mitigation credits. Columbia County is interested in 28.

May 5, 2011:  Regularly scheduled County Commission meeting - Bayfield pulled

And examination of the sanitized County Commission minutes do not indicate whether or not there was any discussion regarding the removal of the Bayfield mitigation bank purchase agreement from the agenda.

May 18, 2011:  The Observer communicates with County Attorney Marlin Feagle

The Observer forwarded a question to Mr. Feagle via e-mail:

2. Also regarding Bayfield, Mr. DuPree said he negotiated for the Board with Sam [owner of Bayfield]. What is the statutory exemption that allowed Mr. DuPree/the county to negotiate out of the Sunshine without a meeting notice? Considering there is only one proposed mitigation bank in Columbia County ...

Mr. Feagle replied, "Number 2 cannot be fully answered by emails."

May 19, 2011:  Regularly scheduled County Commission meeting - Bayfield on the agenda. DuPree claims he did not negotiate.

Ms. Lemley waits for an answer.

The following information will not be found in the sanitized Columbia County minutes.

At the beginning of the meeting, Observer associate Barbara Lemley asked County Attorney Marlin Feagle the following:

Mr. Feagle, what is the statutory exemption that allowed Commissioner and Chairman DuPree to negotiate for the Columbia County Commission, the Bayfield credits, without a public notice.

The question was followed by silence.

Ms. Lemley asked again, "What is the exemption?"

Attorney Feagle responded, "Mr. Chairman, want me to respond to that now?"

Chairman DuPree responds, "Ahm -- no sir."

Ms. Lemley asked, "Would any of the Board members like to respond?"

DuPree: "The Board didn't have me negotiate."

Chairman DuPree: "I would. The Board didn't have me negotiate with Bayfield on credits. What the Board did was have me go do an -- fact-finding."

Further along in the meeting the draft purchase agreement between Bayfield and Columbia County came up.

After an extended fumbling, bumbling conversation among the County Commission members, the County Attorney and Bayfield's Sam Oosterhoudt, with no one able to explain the necessity of spending $1,519,600 for mitigation credits, whose price was clearly negotiated under the cover of darkness and in advance of the meeting, the Board tabled the draft purchase agreement on a 3 to 2 vote, with no one ever explaining the need to spend the money in advance.

For a little while, the pockets of Columbia County's working families remained unpicked, at least until the next meeting, when Columbia County's legendary good old boy County Commission looks to line the pockets of the County Manager's best friend one more time.

Epilogue:  When they are looking to break the rules, nothing slows down Columbia County's Good ol' Boys

Veteran DEP expert Connie Bersok explains it one more time to Columbia County.

The very next day, May 20th, a Columbia County entourage consisting of County Manager Dale Williams, County Commission Chairman Jody DuPree, Commissioner DePratter, Commissioner Frisina, County Atty. Feagle, Bayfield's Sam Oosterhoudt, and the County's mitigation consultant Dennis Price all journeyed to Cedar Key to make their case, at a Water Management District workshop, for using Bayfield mitigation credits to mitigate the Home Depot property, which is in a different basin.

The Water Management District, the DEP, and one of the major mitigation bank law firms in Florida - Lewis, Longman & Walker PA - told Columbia County that they could not do what it was they had been trying to do because it simply was just plain not legal, a fact that they had been told time and time again during the past few months.

It appears that this time the message may have sunk in.

Of course, neither the County Manager nor anyone from the County Commission advised the public of their attendance at the Water Management District meetings, nor of their purpose.

It is business as usual in legendary Columbia County, Florida.

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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