When local photojournalist Jeff Gray went to the St Johns County Convention Center on Friday night to silently protest with a sign that says Michelle O’Connell and Andrea Sheldon were murdered, he did not expect to be told by ranking law enforcement officials that he was on “private property” since county taxpayers have yet to retire the bond debt used to acquire and build the public venue.
When 39-year-old Matthew Daniel Cline, whose Florida Bar profile lists him as a “Government attorney”, Florida Bar number 686824, and who is on the St Johns County payroll, listed as “Undersheriff” earning $124,114.64 plus benefits annually, called Gray a “provocateur”, because he was seen sitting and standing in the open lobby outside of the meeting rooms, Cline appeared guilty of misuse of the word. But, when he repeatedly harangued Gray with false and misleading representations that the public building was private property, denying him his civil right to peacefully assemble there and threatening him with arrest if he did not leave immediately, he betrayed his oath and obligation taken 14-years-ago when he was admitted as an officer of the court.
His employer, on the other hand is not an attorney, he is an elected public official who knew or should have known that St Johns County Convention Center is a public facility, owned by St Johns County, paid for with a multi-million-dollar bond issue, underwritten by the taxpayers of St Johns County.
Sheriff David Bernard Shoar tried using impassioned pleas to goad Gray into leaving “like a gentleman”, entreating him to “just go home” and “go stand by the road with your sign and take all the pictures you want” while clearly threatening Gray with physical removal and arrest if he didn’t comply. “This is our night, why would you want to disrupt it?” Shoar asked Gray, after ceremoniously asking an assistant manager from the private hotel next door if he had asked Gray to leave the premises.
“We all know this is private property,” Cline insisted. “This is private property, so you have to go,” Shoar told Gray. Unfortunately for Cline and Shoar, neither of their claims were the truth.
The property appraiser’s records, on the other hand, don’t lie. They reveal that the Convention Center, located off Interstate 95 at 500 South Legacy Trail, as a “county owned” building. As such, the entire appraised value of the property is exempt from St Johns County property taxes.
The Convention Center is a St Johns County budget item within the Fiscal Year 2017 Financial Plan for the stated purpose “to finance the construction of a public convention center facility located at the World Golf Village”.
The bond debt on the Convention Center was refinanced in 2004 at a lower interest rate. However, the administration used the opportunity to go further into debt — converting the 1996 issue of $16.99 million into the re-issue of $18.275 million dollars.
You can watch the entire encounter on video: