TAMPA — More than 70 people showed up in Bradenton last week for a meeting of the panel that recommends land purchases for the Florida Forever conservation program.
But when they arrived at the Bradenton City Hall, the residents found an empty dais. Not one of the 10 members of the Acquisition and Restoration Council attended the meeting. Even the council’s chairwoman, a high-ranking official with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, skipped the public hearing.
The only official at the meeting was the council’s staff director, Hank Vinson. He told the attendees he was there to take testimony but could not answer any questions. He assured speakers in the audience that their remarks would be recorded, transcribed and given to the council, which sends recommendations on Florida Forever land purchases to the governor and cabinet.
The audience members, many of whom represent various environmental and conservation groups, were startled that the entire committee was absent.
“What kind of public hearing is it when the government doesn’t show up to hear the public?” asked Kent Bailey, chairman of the Tampa Bay Group Sierra Club. Bailey said recording the meeting is not a substitute for interacting with the council members on a personal basis.
“The idea is you look people in the eye, talk to them face to face and you communicate with them,” he said.
Attempts Monday to reach the council’s chairwoman, Katy Fenton, were unsuccessful. Instead, a DEP spokeswoman replied in an email that the regional council meetings held outside Tallahassee are “not intended to be a dialogue.”
“This is a great opportunity for members of the public who cannot travel to Tallahassee to provide their input, which the council takes into consideration when voting,” spokeswoman Mara Burger said in the email. “It is not unusual for ARC members, who are volunteers, not to attend a regional meeting as they attend the Tallahassee meeting and are provided with comments from the regional meeting.”
That’s not how those who attended the meeting understood it would take place, said Mary Hrenda, a member of the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club. Hrenda said the agenda for the meeting said the council would discuss Florida Forever projects for the second cycle of 2014.
Also slated for discussion that night was Amendment 1, which voters passed Nov. 4. The amendment earmarks 33 percent of the excise tax on documents, such as deeds and mortgage, to go toward conservation projects.
Lynetta Usher Griner, who joined the Acquisition and Restoration Council in December 2008, said she has never attended one of the regional meetings held outside of Tallahassee. Griner said she’s not sure if any members attend the out-of-town meetings.
“Any public hearing is not necessarily going to include dialogue; a public hearing is to take testimony,” said Griner, an executive with the Usher Land and Timber Co. in Chiefland.
Mark Middlebrook, who said he’s been on the council for a few months, was not aware there was a regional meeting. Middlebrook is executive director of the nonprofit St. Johns River Alliance. He said he appeared before the council frequently in Tallahassee when he headed Preservation Project Jacksonville, a conservation program.
“If I was supposed to be there, I apologize,” Middlebrook said. “If they were taking testimony on specific Florida Forever projects, I probably should have been there.”
Other members said they could not attend because of prior commitments.