Florida Keys News
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
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Lobbyist proposal causes anger, confusion

UPPER KEYS -- The Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District has rejected the county's proposal that it chip in $78,000 over a three-year period for a lobbyist to target sewer funds.

"This is bull----," board member Norm Higgins said twice from the dais at last week's wastewater meeting last week. "We don't need this guy."

As an alternative to the county's proposed interlocal lobbying contract, the wastewater board advised staff to pay the county 0.2 percent on the back end of any funds the Peebles lobbying firm secures for the district. District Manager Margaret Blank and board attorney Ray Giglio were expected to put that counteroffer in writing to send to the county.

County Administrator Roman Gastesi told the Free Press that he had not yet been briefed on the actions of the Key Largo board and isn't sure it would be appropriate for the wastewater district to pay the county on a contingency basis for funds secured by its lobbyist. It is illegal in Florida for government entities to pay lobbyists on a contingency basis.

"That just doesn't smell right," Gastesi said. "You can't have contingency with lobbyists."

The county says the goal of the lobbyist will be to secure an annual $50 million grant for the Florida Keys over the next three years. That money will be used to pay for sewer projects.

In a nonbinding agreement with the county, the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District is expected to receive about $45 million of that $150 million.

The lobbyist is also expected to secure money through the Restore Act created after the BP oil disaster. It is unknown how much or how that money will dispersed.

Municipalities that don't chip in on the cost of the lobbyist won't receive any of the funds secured, according to the terms of the agreement.

Gastesi likened the process of trying to contract with another government to that of seeking a written agreement with a girlfriend after a relationship of only four months.

"It's like a courtship," Gastesi said, describing the phases it takes to work through the draft document.

But wastewater board members described the process as far from a courtship.

Board member Steve Gibbs called it "blackmail."

The board members also agreed that they didn't want to pay for a lobbyist they felt would be controlled by county officials.

According to Blank, the wastewater district has a lobbyist, Cynthia Henderson, who earns $36,000 a year for the same duties as the Peebles firm would.

The county's request has different permeations in Islamorada, mainly because the village already has a $75,000 annual contract with the Peebles firm to lobby the Scott Administration and the Florida Legislature for state sewer funding.

Under the proposed interlocal lobbying contract, the village would pay the Peebles firm an additional $21,000, this time routed through Monroe County.

Gastesi told the Free Press that half of that money would be to support the county's efforts to line up the Restore Act money. The other $10,500 would go toward lobbying for wastewater funding from the state.

"It's a little squirrely. I see where people could have questions," Gastesi said. But he insisted the extra money the county is asking the village to pay to the Peebles firm isn't redundant. Rather, it would go toward the Restore Act lobbying efforts of Peebles associate John Wayne Smith and the Scott Administration lobbying efforts of former state House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Peebles subcontractor.

"I see it as a targeted lobbyist," Gastesi said.

Nevertheless, the proposal is causing confusion at Village Hall. Village Manger Ed Koconis said last week that he's not sure when he'll bring the contract forward for discussion by the Village Council because he needs clarification from the county.

"I don't think it is clear on what it is supposed to say because we already use Bill [Peebles]," he said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ken Philipson said he'd support paying $10,500 for the Restore Act lobbying, since that money is to be disbursed by the county, and, he said, lobbying for it isn't part of what the village is already paying the Peebles firm to do.

He views the lobbying for state wastewater dollars differently.

"You can't pay twice for the same thing. I won't support that," Philipson said.

jgore@keysnews.com

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