Missing in Action: First America Foundation

The somewhat controversial non-profit First America Foundation, was missing-in-action at the last meeting of the St. Augustine City Commission where it was expected to make an updated report to commissioners as to its progress.

The foundation was created last summer amid concerns by some that certain plans for St. Augustine’s proposed three years of celebration would collapse under the weight of public scrutiny if the process were to be attempted by city staff in the Heritage Tourism Department; largely because of the requirements of Florida’s Sunshine Laws.

The Mayor, who is an attorney, then resident and former employee of the Department of the Interior Bill Leary serving as 450th liaison, also an attorney, and Don Wallis, an attorney with the private firm of Upchurch, Bailey and Upchurch, all declared that if meetings had to be announced and the public had to have access to meetings and records, nothing could be accomplished.

To help the “new sunshine-law-exempt foundation” along, and, in return for relieving the city government from what a few participants perceived to be a burden, the city paid $275,000 in “start-up funds” to the unheard-of organization with no track record.

One local official who previously served on the Mayor’s appointed 450th Advisory Committee and was therefore invited to serve on the board of First America Foundation, decided not to — saying he felt as though the new foundation “really wasn’t interested in anything I had to say”.

The official, who asked Historic City News Editor Michael Gold to protect his name, said that as soon as he attended the first board meeting, he felt that Don Wallis merely expected the board members to lend their names to the foundation for credibility in their fundraising efforts — not because they were looking for any guidance in directing the celebration events.

Those feelings were echoed by another local businessman who says he doesn’t understand what exactly First America Foundation is raising money for. “They haven’t come to me and said that they need a certain amount of money to pay for certain expenditures — instead, they seem to be saying, generally, raise the money now and we’ll tell you what we need it for later.”

Gold, who lived in St. Augustine during the city’s 400th commemoration, and still has mementos used in fundraising efforts from that event, questions how a corporation can spring up from nothing, get tax-exempt, non-profit status and be given a $275,000 check from the city taxpayers within a matter of weeks.

According to an account from the last commission meeting written by former St. Augustine Mayor George Gardner that was published in the St. Augustine Report, Commissioner Bill Leary raised questions about the foundation’s activities. “I feel that since its creation last August, they’ve gone into a tunnel,” Leary said.

Vice Mayor Leanna Freeman said the foundation offered to update her, “but this is something we should all be hearing.”

The report has been postponed to a later date, but our check has already been cashed.

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