DELAND — A public meeting scheduled for Aug. 13 at the Ocean Center was advertised as a chance to get into an in-depth discussion on the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a greenway network of essential habitat throughout the state that’s going to expand soon with $300 million in federal funds.
But some allege the meeting was also going to be used by County Chair Jeff Brower for something happening 10 days later: The Aug. 23 primary election.
Detractors say Brower has been cheerleading for his handpicked slate of candidates running for open County Council seats, and the wildlife corridor meeting was becoming a choreographed show to make his candidates of choice look like desperately needed defenders of the environment.
Brower recruited a local woman who’s involved in environmental causes to take a leading role in setting up the meeting, which was intended to be run by county government staff.
And the closing speaker at the Saturday meeting was set to be Arnie Bellini, a Tampa-area billionaire philanthropist who donated $20,000 last month to a Volusia County political action committee that supports the four County Council candidates endorsed by Brower.
Allegations about Brower and the environmental meeting were tossed around for weeks in private conversations and on social media. And then during closing comments of last week’s County Council meeting, the accusations exploded into public view.
“Mr. Brower, last meeting you lied to me,” charged County Councilman Ben Johnson. “You lied to this Council. You lied to the public, the people that we represent. You have made this a political event, a cheap political stunt to enhance your ‘Volusia Values’ candidates.”
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One of the lies Johnson alleged Brower told was that the event couldn’t be postponed because the speakers were all lined up and organizers were eager to proceed. But Lisa Shipley, CEO of Bellini’s Live Wildly organization and one of the meeting’s organizers, emailed Brower in June to say the gathering probably should be delayed until late November or early December to let the impacts of the November election settle.
‘You cannot justify what you have done’
Johnson read through emails and text messages that he said documented what happened, and he loudly berated Brower.
“This is wrong all the way around,” Johnson said. “You have taken a wonderful event and bastardized it to the point that who can have trust in what is happening?”
Johnson told Brower that “sometimes I think you have lost your way.”
“Mr. Brower, you can try all you want, but you cannot justify what you have done here, what you said and how you have deceived the people, including us,” Johnson said.
Brower shot back that he fully stands by what he wrote in an email about not wanting to delay the workshop.
“I want the public to know what’s at stake here so that they can weigh in to the candidates that are running. All of them,” Brower said. “That’s the political system of the United States of America. They need to know what’s going on. They need to know the benefits of it. It’s critical that we move forward with the wildlife corridor.”
Brower went on to say that “it was not a political move to hurt anybody on this Council.”
“The public deserves to know where we stand on preserving land or not,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be squashed. We have 200 people registered for it. It needs to move forward.”
At the Council’s July 19 meeting, Johnson had suggested the wildlife corridor meeting be postponed, but Brower quickly shot down that idea.
At last week’s meeting, Johnson again suggested the meeting be postponed until after the Nov. 8 general election. Brower vigorously pushed back again, but about an hour after the County Council meeting ended Tuesday, county staff sent out an email notice announcing that a new date for the environmental conference will be scheduled at the end of the year.
‘How can it not be political?’
After Brower and Johnson volleyed heated, ear-splitting comments between one another for several minutes, other Council members began to jump in. Councilwoman Billie Wheeler responded to Brower’s insistence that the environmental meeting hadn’t been politicized.
“How can it not be political when one of your speakers (donated) $20,000 to a PAC of your candidates that you have running? That’s political.” Wheeler said. “I have a real hard time with the county being involved in that.”
Wheeler also said Brower wasn’t transparent about local environmentalist Libby Lavette being involved in organizing the event.
On June 20, Brower sent an email to Deputy County Manager Suzanne Konchan and Lavette to introduce them to one another, and to let Lavette know that Konchan would be her primary contact for meeting planning “to speed everything up.”
Brower asked the two women to discuss speakers and said “we really don’t have much time to pull this off.”
On June 21, Lavette wrote an email to Shipley saying she had sent her and a county employee a rough draft itinerary in a Google Docs file. Lavette told Shipley she could modify it as she saw fit, and Lavette instructed Shipley on the type of experts she believed were needed in one part of the program.
Also on June 21, Konchan sent an email to Lavette thanking her for her suggestions on people who could speak at the meeting.
A June 30 email from Shipley about locking in a date for the meeting in August and saying she was working on a meeting agenda was sent to Lavette, a county staff member, Brower and Palm Beach environmental attorney Lesley Blackner.
In a June email, Lavette accused county Resource Stewardship Director Brad Burbaugh of avoiding her.
“We need to talk immediately,” she wrote to Burbaugh. “This isn’t Russia. We don’t have 20 years to make this happen. Why have you not contacted one person I put you in touch with that has committed to this event? Not ONE.”
Lavette went on to write that Burbaugh’s response to her requests were “unacceptable, intolerable and inexcusable.”
‘It created that political battlefield’
“You had stated at the very beginning that Libby Lavette was not involved in it,” Wheeler told Brower. “Her name is all the way through this. … She organized this. How in the world she got with staff and was able to organize a program like this, but all the way through it is her organizing and Mr. Bellini’s $20,000. That’s political. That’s just wrong.”
Brower maintained at Tuesday’s Council meeting that Lavette had “nothing to do with the planning” of the wildlife corridor meeting, and she only helped promote it. He said county staff did all the leg work.
Wheeler didn’t buy that explanation.
“The people deserve the truth, and what came out is not the truth,” she said. “There was things behind the scene. ‘Let’s talk by phone and not on the emails.’ … All of us are for that wildlife corridor, and we all are in agreement, and to make it sound like we’re not is so wrong because we all are. But it created that political battlefield, and that’s a shame because it’s a great cause.”
Brower said the situation had devolved into “a political witch hunt.” He said he can’t control what people write on social media, but Wheeler said it’s all documented in emails that Brower was involved.
Some emails show Brower suggesting the meeting be held at the Plaza Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach. A June 20 email from Brower said he was concerned county staff members were “moving away from” the meeting, and he said he wanted residents to see that the conference had “the full support of county staff.”
Johnson doesn’t see the county chair as the victim.
“Mr. Brower, you’re one of the sneakiest politicians I’ve ever met, I believe,” Johnson said.
‘This is why people don’t trust the government’
Councilman Danny Robins, who’s running against one of the candidates Brower supports in the District 3 race, said “I want answers.”
“I want an explanation,” Robins said. “This has put us individually, staff members, this county, citizens, in a bad position. … There’s so much poison fruit attached to this. If anybody reads these emails. … This is why people don’t trust the government.”
Robins said it’s clear to anybody “something’s not right.”
“God almighty. This isn’t good,” Robins said. “I am sick and tired of things being twisted around on this Council. And the level of untruthfulness.”
He noted that Blackner, the environmental attorney, was also involved in the wildlife corridor meeting, and in July she donated $1,000 to the FAIREST PAC that’s supporting Brower’s chosen candidates.
“This can’t be ignored. It isn’t right,” Robins said.
FAIREST is an acronym for Floridians for Affordability In Real Estate and Sales Taxes. Ormond Beach business owner Russ Moulton runs FAIREST PAC.
Johnson also criticized Brower for urging state officials last week to investigate the Florida Department of Transportation’s decision to waive environmental concerns regarding the proposed Interstate 95/Pioneer Trail Interchange project. Brower’s very public request for a formal inquiry and letter to the governor didn’t come with the backing of the rest of the Council, Johnson pointed out.
“You are one vote, Mr. Chair,” Johnson said.
Four of the seven Council members voted last week to send a second letter to the governor saying Brower was only speaking for himself personally on the interchange.
Brower didn’t back down throughout the tense exchanges with Council members. He repeated again that Lavette was not planning the environmental corridor meeting, but Robins said emails show Brower introduced her to others involved “as the go to person to coordinate this event.”
“You’re digging your hole, but I’m not going to stop you. Keep going,” Robins said.
“She was the go to person for publicizing this and getting the public to come,” Brower said. “She has nothing to do with planning the event.”
The arguing, talking over one another and shouting into the microphones went on for nearly an hour.
“You think you’re embarrassing me, I think you’re embarrassing yourselves,” Brower told Council members.
“I’ve never seen a bigger circus,” Council member Heather Post said, adding that some of the people criticizing Brower were “holier than thou.”
She said “it’s insane” to think a Council member wouldn’t talk to citizens involved in an upcoming meeting or effort.
“I just think this is absolutely ridiculous,” Post said. “This is a way to circumvent, kick the can down the road and to not talk about the wildlife corridor because way too many people are making way too much money on development right now.”
‘November is too late’
Some say it all goes back to Brower pushing his slate of four candidates that could give the county chair a five-member voting bloc on the seven-member County Council.
On June 23, Brower authored a social media post saying, “This is your once in a lifetime opportunity to elect a County Council that will actually represent you. Doug Pettit is the vote we need for the Volusia County Council at-large representative because he shares your concerns about the devastation occurring in our community by clear-cut overdevelopment.”
The post went on to say that Pettit, a retired teacher and former business owner who has lived in Volusia County for 15 years, “is free to be your voice and is not beholden to the #DeveloperSlate that would be instructed to drain Volusia dry.”
Brower wrote that if Pettit is elected, “he will join me on the first day of the new Council for the most productive day ever conducted to set in place policies that will improve our quality of life for generations.”
The same day Brower wrote that June 23 post, Shipley sent Brower an email suggesting the wildlife corridor event be postponed to late November or early December.
“I have a lot of experience (over 30 years) with structuring events that build collaboration, create foundations of knowledge and inspire action,” Shipley wrote. “Given that the November elections could create a shift in the targeted constituents within the county, in my mind the best use of time, energy and resources would be to postpone this event until after the elections.”
A delay would also provide time to “develop a robust presentation,” she said in the email.
On June 27, Brower emailed her back saying the wildlife corridor meeting needed to be held prior to Aug. 23.
“This is really disappointing to me,” Brower wrote. “I understand it gives you more time for planning. However, the August 23 primary could end all political interest in the corridor. We need this before the elections so the public is better aware of what is being proposed and how it will work. Then the public can let their representatives and candidates know if they support the corridor or not. They do! November is too late.”
Later that day Shipley wrote Brower to say she “was unaware that the public was the target for this event.” She said the agenda she had been working on “probably wouldn’t appeal to the public in a way that would inspire support.”
Brower also sent an email to Bellini, the Tampa philanthropist who donated $20,000 to FAIREST PAC, saying the meeting needed to be held prior to Aug. 23.
Brower and FAIREST PAC have supported County Council candidates Pettit for the at-large post, Ted Noftall for District 3, Ken Smith for District 4 and Julio David Sosa for District 5.
Advertisements paid for by FAIREST PAC say the campaigns of Pettit and Noftall are funded “by average citizens, not big developers.”
Some of their ads say Pettit, Noftall, Sosa and Smith are the “REAL Republicans for Volusia County.”
Many of their ads focus on protecting the environment and holding down taxes.
In a July 12 social media post, Brower wrote that he, Pettit, Sosa, Noftall and Smith could protect Volusia County’s budget and environment starting Jan. 5.
You can reach Eileen at Eileen.Zaffiro@news-jrnl.com