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    Adviser's job stirs conflict concerns

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- At a cost to taxpayers of $175 an hour, Edward Vogler II advises Senate President John McKay on growth management laws. He's supposed to lend private industry's perspective to the debate.

    But Vogler has another job: He works as an attorney for St. Joe Co., which is seeking a special break from the state Legislature this week. St. Joe, the biggest private landowner in Florida, wants an amendment allowing it to bypass some state oversight of its major developments.

    In interviews Thursday, Vogler and a spokeswoman for McKay said he had nothing to do with the amendment, which has raised the hackles of environmentalists and planning groups.

    "He didn't draft the amendment. He never advocated the amendment. He has not discussed this with members of the Senate or House," said Christina Johnson, a McKay spokeswoman.

    But some environmentalists at the Capitol say Vogler shouldn't be working for St. Joe on the one hand and crafting state growth management policy on the other.

    "I'm absolutely shocked," said Denise Layne, a lobbyist for the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's an absolute conflict of interest if it's true."

    The amendment, being pushed by St. Joe lobbyists, would allow the company to build many more homes than it can now before its project is considered a Development of Regional Impact, or DRI.

    Bypassing the DRI review could save St. Joe millions. The exemption applies only in a handful of rural counties, including parts of the Florida Panhandle where St. Joe has vast holdings.

    Thursday, the amendment that St. Joe has been pushing was tacked onto the growth management bills in both the House and Senate. The bill may not get passed before the Legislature adjourns today because of an impasse between the House and Senate involving local taxing authority.

    Arvida Co., which was bought by St. Joe in 1997, hired Vogler in 1999 to help the company win approval for a 895-unit condominium project in Bradenton.

    "At the time, I didn't even know Arvida was owned by St. Joe," Vogler said.

    Vogler was doing work for a St. Joe condominium development in Bradenton as recently as last week, he said Thursday. Vogler is a land-use attorney at the Blalock, Landers, Walters & Vogler law firm.

    "He's working for us as a lawyer on a particular project in Southwest Florida," said Bob Rhodes, executive vice president of St. Joe.

    McKay, who is a Bradenton developer, hired Vogler to advise the Senate at the beginning of this year. Vogler said McKay "wanted to have someone with a private industry perspective to help formulate good policy for growth management."

    Vogler's work for St. Joe doesn't appear to violate a conflict-of-interest clause in his Senate contract, which says that neither he, nor any member of his firm, can lobby legislators, the governor and Cabinet, or a state agency, on behalf of a client. Vogler isn't a lobbyist; he is a paid adviser on growth management. And even though St. Joe lobbyists are pushing the amendment, they aren't from Vogler's law firm.

    "None of the people from St. Joe have ever talked to me about this," Vogler said. "I've done work for a variety of clients that may be hurt or benefited by this legislation. There isn't anything I've worked on that's been specifically directed to a particular private interest."

    Vogler said the amendment was put on in the House, not in the Senate, where he works.

    This year, former House Speaker John Thrasher was criticized because he had hired a lawyer named Steve MacNamara as chief of staff. MacNamara had a contract with the House, but was also doing private legal work for Suwannee Concrete, an affiliate of Anderson Columbia. Anderson Columbia won approval for a controversial cement plant on the Ichetucknee River.

    Supporters of the St. Joe amendment, including Republican Rep. Bev Kilmer from Marianna, say the change will help slow-growth counties that are struggling financially.

    The Senate sponsor of the growth management bill, Republican Sen. Lee Constantine of Altamonte Springs, said he personally opposes the DRI exemption, but allowed it on his bill because leadership in the House insisted it be part of the growth management package.

    "I cannot say that this is the best public policy," Constantine said. "We've got a lot of good stuff in this bill. That was the one thing I could not fight off. I was told by the House that was one of the conditions they would not ever take off."

    "This gives a blank check for St. Joe to do its development in northwest Florida in the counties that don't have the staff to deal with large-scale developments," said Marcia Elder, a lobbyist for the American Planning Association. "It's crazy."

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