Esther Hagler, Office Manager for St. Johns County Housing and Community Services, notified Historic City News reporters about last week’s regular monthly Industrial Development Authority meeting in the Executive Conference Room at the St. Johns County Administration Building and we attended.
Attorney for the Authority, Geoff Dobson, remarked that in the years he has represented the IDA, he has yet to see a news reporter — but at Monday’s meeting, there were two; Historic City News Editor Michael Gold, and Peter Guinta from The St. Augustine Record.
In fact, there were probably more lawyers than he had seen, as well. Besides Dobson, Attorney Michael McCabe, St. Johns County Attorney Patrick McCormack, and Attorney Dana Price attended the meeting.
Many St. Johns County residents have never known that the Industrial Development Authority existed — for years the County has carried a reputation for being “non-friendly” towards businesses. A peek at the percentage of residential tax payers compared to commercial tax payers in the County provides further validation of the stigma.
The Development Authority is a public agency formed in 1980 by Florida Statute to stimulate industrial development for profit and not-for-profit entities through the use of public financing in the form of bonds. The St. Johns County IDA offers Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRBs) of $2 million and more for businesses to develop capital projects.
Peter J. Apol is the Chairman, Ronald R. Avery is Vice-Chair, James L. Zimmerman serves as Secretary, James E. Browning as Assistant Secretary, and Lane Harlan Mason is Treasurer — not only are those the five officers, those are the five appointed board members, as well.
So, why the new-found attention on the Authority?
The answer is a letter.
After Treasurer Harlan Mason made public comments in objection to the millage rate increase proposed by the County Administrator, Michael Wanchick, and supported by some of the County Commission members, Mason received a letter asking for his resignation.
The two-page letter, sent on the stationery of St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners and addressed to Mason at his residence address, said, in part, “I would like to formally request your resignation from service as a member of the St. Johns County IDA.”
The letter was signed “Mark P. Miner, Vice-Chairman, St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners”.
Miner expressed to Mason, “it is imperative that the County Commission, County Administration and the Industrial Development Authority be a united force working with the Chamber of Commerce and other agencies and organizations to drive business development, commercial growth and job creation.”
Miner said that he perceives “a growing perception in the community that conflict may exist between the IDA, County Administration and the County Commission”.
However, in the letter’s opening sentence, Miner said that it is Mason’s “public political commentary as of late” that has been the cause of his concerns.
Miner criticized Mason for making a published statement that was critical of the County’s “Chief Executive” — referring to the County Administrator and the proposed .75 mill increase in the rate used to calculate property taxes that Wanchick was promoting at Town Hall meetings.
Miner also criticizes Mason for statements made in a newspaper article that cited “local Republican Party officials,” attributing blame to Mason even though he was not named in The Record article. Mason serves as Republican Executive Committee Chairman,
Miner holds Mason to account for fears that the Republican Party of St. Johns County is trying to unseat County Commissioner Joseph “Ken” Bryan.
“The Republican Executive Committee of St. Johns County does not target seats held by Republican Elected Officials,” Mason told Historic City News. “I was not the source for this inaccurate statement. I also asked each member of the REC Board and they also state that they were not asked about this.”
Miner somehow concludes that St. Johns County voters believe that Mason is using his seat on the non-compensated, volunteer Industrial Development Authority to “remove the County Commission Chairman”.
In a letter read during the meeting to the IDA members and others in attendance, Mason said that his comments in opposition to the millage rate increase were not meant to be “disrespectful or damaging to my personal or the IDA’s relationship with the Board of County Commissioners or County Administration. I did not reference my IDA position in those comments.”
Mason went on to say that he reserved the right to speak on public policy — even if his opinion differed with those on the County Commission. Mason said his public comments will be limited to policy matters and bring no embarrassment to the IDA or fracture IDA relationships with government officials.
Mason apologized to the Authority members for any conflict that may have been caused by his county budget comments if they caused harm to the mission of the organization, however, in a separate letter to the Commission, dated July 11, 2011, Mason wrote, “I can continue to contribute to our important mission by continuing my service and will not resign from the IDA.”
Commissioner Miner did not attend the Development Authority meeting; however, in his letter to Mason, he gave Mason an ultimatum — “Should you choose to ignore this request, I will be forced to raise this issue at the next meeting of the Board of County Commissioners.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, during closing comments, Miner did bring up the matter; but, he said that he is willing to accept Mason’s apology and not pursue his removal from the Authority any further.
Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer