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What isn't being reported from the commission meeting

It’s a Thursday and man has this week flown by. Some of the Run for the Money community runs are happening for the Key Training Center next week, those are open to the public and you can find the schedule in the Chronicle. I’ll post it to the Concurrent Facebook page as well. There’s a lot still to cover as we are now two days removed from the last county commission meeting with the main story still being the fate of the tourism director John Pricher. I think I may have been saying Prichard with a D yesterday and it’s not, my apologies there. My favorite sportscaster calls the New York City borough Brook-lum and I’ve never understood why his staff doesn’t correct him.

Speaking of corrections, got to hand it to Mike Wright. He wrote about some corrections to the Pine Ridge situation, specifically that it is a change to the master plan rather than a zoning change since all of Pine Ridge is zoned the same way, that Planning and Development Commission meeting, which I will likely be attending, is one week from today. Mike should be praised here. It’s easy to crush people for being wrong, and most members of the media would have no problem overlooking the fact that I was then wrong as well by echoing him, but it takes a lot to come back out and admit it for the good of the public. I know a couple of instances in which this didn’t happen when he was getting started, and then there are other instances like when he admitted he was wrong about the Sheriff’s pay raise that he doubled down by saying ridiculous things like the Sheriff should give back his salary, but this one was a flat out correction and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s quite praise worthy to do so, good job Mike.

Also an interesting commentary piece in the Chronicle this morning from former property appraiser Les Cook, a Meadowcrest resident who was adamantly against the zoning change that allowed the now-defunct affordable housing project near the neighborhood, and I imagine I’ll get to that eventually but not today. No, today is going to be about the commission meeting again. Except, it’s going to be a reaction - not to what others are saying about the meeting – but rather what they’re not. Because sometimes the silence around what’s not being said rings the loudest alarm bells.

My nine month old daughter has a comfort song that can almost always instantly sooth her. It’s We Don’t Talk about Bruno from the movie Encanto soundtrack. I’ll pause a moment for you to sing the hook if you know it, which there’s a good chance you might since it actually hit number 1 on the Billboard charts, first song since 1993 from an animated movie to do so, but if you don’t then it’s an easy premise to follow. Basically a family of people each with a magical powers has this uncle named Bruno who can see the future, but that becomes a real bummer for everyone so he is sort of exiled into nonexistence, and everyone in the town of Encanto knows “we don’t talk about Bruno.”

One thing the Board of County Commissioners did on Tuesday that has not been reported by either the Chronicle in its story yesterday nor by Mike Wright in his commission round up this morning is that the board agreed to extend the lobbying contract with Sunrise Consulting Group without putting the contract up for bid. In fact, there was talk about extending it indefinitely without ever putting it up for bid. That should be at least a little bit concerning.

According to Florida Lobbyist public information, the contract is for between $10,000 and $20,000 per quarter and I believe past meetings said it was for $60,000 per year but I don’t have that 100%. I agree with the commission when they say that so far, this has been worth it. Every penny. The legislative report Sunrise gave the commission was in excellent detail with the exception of the home rule section the can be awfully convoluted anyway and the return on investment to the county is well worth it.

But it’s a little weird that the extension of the contract, and particularly the discussion surrounding that extension, was not reported on at all. Mike Bates wrote his own dedicated article about the presentation…nothing about the contract. Mike Wright *included the Sunrise Consulting Group staff in his accompanying photo of this morning’s round up* …nothing the contract. It’s weird, right?

The reason for not putting the contract out to bid is because this is not a commodity but rather a service and the nature of the service is that it is relationship-based. The front facing person of the Sunrise Consulting Group is lobbyist Gene McGee who until recently ran his own firm GMA or Gene McGee and Associates. Oh, here we go, Bobby is going to call Gene McGee Bruno and say we don’t talk about him. No, that’s not it at all. Bruno is something else we’ll get to in a second. Let’s talk about Gene.

Gene is a committed community leader who has done much for our county and it’s no wonder why the commission likes him. I like him. But that’s where the problem begins. Gene is now moving into the heart of his 60s, and while he could easily do what he does for another 10-15 years, I do think allowing GMA to become part of Sunrise Consulting Group is a sign that he is at least nearing retirement. He appears to have set up a transition plan to someone else in the Sunrise group, but they still won’t be Gene. And remember, the contract’s value is in its relationships.

That becomes an important part of this. Let’s recap why. The commission voted to extend the $60,000 contract without putting it out to bid, and the gist of what Commissioners Diana Finegan and Jeff Kinnard were saying was that it never needed to go out to bid so long as it was renewed annually. Interm-chair Holly Davis, who ran an excellent meeting, took a more cautious view of this and Commissioner Rebecca Bays pushed back which is why the discussion was noteworthy. Yet all members of the press ignored this part of the meeting. To highlight the point, the commission opened the presentation like this, which is a very natural mistake to make, but a critical one when you’re talking about indefinite, noncompetitive contracts *play audio*

They are talking about giving ultimate contract security to someone – Gene- when they are actually talking about giving it to something - Sunrise. Not good. But the $60k isn’t the problem. Even Gene’s eventual retirement isn’t the problem. Bruno, the one thing we don’t talk about, is the conflict of interest. Sunrise Consulting Group also represents Duke Energy who is constantly lobbying elected officials to get tax breaks or rate hikes, and more importantly Lifestream who the county just committed $2 million to in the construction of a mental health facility that in essence locks us into a long term relationship with them. I’ve talked to people close with this about any appearance of conflict of interest and they say that those lobbying contracts are for the state representatives, not the county commission, but if the lobbying firm has enough sway with the commission to never even have to compete to get the contract, then what kind of influence do you think it has on behalf of their clients in trying to get $2 million out of the county budget for a building?

I’ll wrap it up with this. Commissioner Rebecca Bays was the first commissioner with Commissioner Holly Davis also expressing concern, and remember Chair Ruthie Schlabach was absent, to speak out against this idea of a non-competitive contract although she ultimately voted for it. I have tremendous respect for Commissioner Bays even though I worked against her in the election. Two quick funny stories, I met with her in her office and walked straight to chair behind her desk to sit, completely by accident, and she laughed but was fine with it and offered it to me. I of course declined and we sat on the other side of the desk but no ego there at all. In a thank you note I wrote to her, I said talking to her was the most fun I’ve had since my last academic conference, something I met as a compliment, although in hindsight may have been taken otherwise. But that’s who she is. We’re blessed to have five incredibly bright and capable commissioners, but Commissioner Bays really, I mean, the depth of understanding is seemingly limitless.

So when she brings up a point, I’m always surprised the commission doesn’t listen more intently, and sure enough, she got steamrolled for simply suggesting that handing out contracts without a bid process is a bad precedent to start. It’s not about one person. It’s not about the $60,000. It’s about what’s not being said and the ever-lingering tension of potential conflict of interest that surrounds it. But we don’t talk about Bruno.


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