Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Friday, May 8, 2009
Land trust wants to set the record straight

The Bahama Village land trust board on Thursday acknowledged financial mistakes it has made, but accused Key West city officials of trying to wrest 6.6 acres of waterfront property away from the nonprofit organization.

The Bahama Conch Community Land Trust recently came under scrutiny again and must repay the city $102,000 it double-charged for a home renovation project. The discovery of the error came just days before the City Commission was scheduled to decide whether to lease a Truman Waterfront tract to the land trust for use as affordable housing, retail space and a cultural center.

The trust board held a press conference Thursday to answer questions and tell the public it "can't help but feel there is a deliberate attempt on someone's part to ensure that we don't have that lease, and that this error is being used to take away the six acres," Vice President Bob Kelly said.

The city had more than 10 months to check an invoice before paying it, and should have caught the oversight, he said. In short, the city paid the trust $102,000 in 2001 for various repair work. The trust charged the city the same amount for the same work in 2008, according to documents from City Attorney Shawn Smith.

On Tuesday, Mayor Morgan McPherson, who has publicly questioned the trust's ability to successfully complete its waterfront plans, received support from his fellow commissioners when he asked City Manager Jim Scholl to audit the trust.

"We don't fear an audit," Kelly said Thursday, adding that McPherson has told him privately that he will not support the trust as long as Norma Jean Sawyer is the executive director.

Sawyer, who the trust pays an annual salary of $91,000, was not at Thursday's press conference, but the board spoke on her behalf and pledged their support of her. The nonprofit is funded by grants, private donations and property taxes collected in Bahama Village.

Kelly and President Cecil Bain acknowledged the trust has made "honest mistakes" and understands that public perception is critical to the success of such an enterprise.

About two years ago, officials criticized Sawyer for taking a salary advance from the trust's funds, and for hiring her son, Adrian Poitier, to do repair work on trust properties while he was a trust board member.

Board member David Lybrand said for much of the trust's existence, Sawyer was working without any other employees, which may explain some bookkeeping errors.

The trust plans to bring the waterfront lease back to the City Commission once the new audit is final.

"The next step is to clear this matter," Kelly said, adding that the trust will repay the city the $102,000 in a few months when it sells a home it owns to the current tenant. "A mistake was made and it's being corrected."

mbolen@keysnews.com

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