Should elected officials vote in city business with their donors?

Freshman city commissioner, Todd Neville, a local certified public accountant who you would expect to understand financial conflicts of interest, was asked to recuse himself from voting in last Monday night’s hearing on the rezoning of the Dow Museum of Historic Homes.

The centuries-old homes were part of the city’s most protected zoning classification — HP-1. The new owner, David Corneal, a developer who has been cherry-picking some sweet deals inside the St Augustine city limits over the last year, let his lawyer, Ellen Avery-Smith do the talking for him; although his son, Seth Corneal, gave his testimony during the quasi-judicial hearing in favor of rezoning to favor his father.

Seth Corneal represents Commissioner Neville in business transactions in his capacity as Neville’s friend and attorney, doing business as The Corneal Law Firm.

In addition to the fact that both Neville and Vice-Mayor Roxanne Horvath read their decisions to approve Corneal’s controversial PUD application, prepared before they had heard any of the testimony in the required public hearing, Neville had a direct, undisclosed financial conflict of interest.

During last year’s political campaign that brought Neville into office, he raised a significant amount of cash — much of which came from land investors, developers, two maximum donations from the real estate political action committee, and real estate lawyers.

David Corneal himself made a maximum cash donation of $500.00 to Neville’s election campaign. Further, Corneal’s son, the lawyer who spoke in favor of the rezoning and Neville’s friend and attorney, gave $300.00 to candidate Todd Neville during the race.

Historic City News also discovered, on investigation of publicly available financial records on file with the Supervisor of Elections in St Johns County, Vicky Oakes, that Corneal’s lawyer, representing him in the rezoning, Ellen Avery-Smith, was Neville campaign contributor, too — to the tune of $150.00.

Neville refused to recuse himself, despite the demand of a local attorney. Jane West, who represents a number of neighbors who are adversely impacted by the “spot zoning”, identified the relationship between Neville and the applicant, but did not bring up the cash donations that had transpired directly between Neville and the parties.

Historic City News will continue its independent investigation of the facts in this transaction and, if warranted, forward the results to state officials for further action.

A total of 82 members of the public and 15 members of staff descended on the Alcazar Room in City Hall at the start of the 5:00 p.m. meeting. Every chair was filled, public speakers were made to wait outside if they did not have an early seat. By 6:20 p.m. those suffering the heat and mosquitos on the outside walkway, watching the meeting on a portable television, lost the signal when the TV set went dark.

At the same time, Historic City News readers who had been turned away from the Alcazar Room or were staying at home or work to watch the events unfold on Comcast 3, were calling and texting to let us know that the sound was not being broadcast with the picture signal.

Still 34 citizens came forward through the meeting that lasted until after 1:00 a.m. to speak against the project, while only 19, including Seth Corneal, spoke in favor. The taxpayers were not represented by the politicians they elected — all four commissioners voted to allow the rezoning, while only Mayor Nancy Shaver followed the instructions of the City Attorney and evidence presented at the hearing to arrive at her decision, voting to deny the application.

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