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City Hall contract encounters opposition

An advisory committee aligns itself against St. Pete Beach's contract, and the state attorney's office investigates it.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000


ST. PETE BEACH -- A special advisory committee is urging the City Commission to back out of its contract with local developer Paul Skipper, citing concerns with Skipper's progress toward plans for a new City Hall.

In a letter, initialed by city residents and committee members, the group accuses Skipper of breaking deadlines outlined in the contract and refusing to do some work the city had expected of him. Meanwhile, the state attorney's office confirmed Tuesday that it is investigating St. Pete Beach's unusual contract with the developer, specifically whether the non-bidded contract -- and how the city and Skipper have executed it -- violates any laws.

"The real issue that we have to establish is if there's evidence of a crime," said Michael Lunsford, an investigator with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

And in yet another wrinkle, both Skipper and City Manager Carl Schwing question how the six-member city committee criticizing the contract managed to jointly write and initial the letter to city officials without violating Florida's Sunshine Law, which governs open meetings.

The latest developments in St. Pete Beach's effort to build a new City Hall at the foot of the Corey Causeway come less than three weeks before the city is scheduled to issue final permits on the project. City Hall will be built on a piece of land that Skipper has donated to the city, in exchange for the exclusive right to build the municipal headquarters for $2.8-million.

Schwing declined to respond to any criticisms levied in the letter until the committee explains how it wrote the letter without violating Sunshine Laws.

"It's not fair to the city for a memo like this to come about when we have not been a part of the meeting or part of the discussions from which these recommendations came," Schwing said.

Skipper said he had not received a copy of the letter and questioned whether the committee violated the Sunshine Law in writing it. After the St. Petersburg Times faxed him a copy of the letter, Skipper did not return calls seeking comment.

City resident Jack Ohlhaber, chairman of the City Hall Advisory Committee, said accusations that his group broke the law detract attention from their concerns. Other members are Ron Holehouse, Joseph Londo, Charles Keator, Augie D'Alessio and Jim Nelson.

Essentially, they fear the city is giving the developer too much leeway in completing the final details of the new City Hall.

Skipper recently returned specifications to the city's architect on the project, and the developer's mark-ups resulted in "a very major change that indicates no intent to provide the quality needed," the letter states.

Further, the committee's letter suggests that another contractor, selected through a public bidding process, could do the work more competitively than Skipper.

Ohlhaber brushed aside Skipper and Schwing's accusations that his committee violated the Sunshine Law. He said he wrote the letter and then invited each committee member to come to his home, read the letter and initial it if they agreed with it.

On the issue of written correspondence among members of the same board, the 2000 Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual states: "If a memorandum reflecting the views of a board member on a pending board issue is circulated among the board members with each indicating his or her approval or disapproval and, upon completion of the signatures, the memorandum has the effect of becoming the official action of the board, there is a violation of the Sunshine Law."

* * *

Ohlhaber agreed his committee is subject to the Sunshine Law, but he does not think they violated it. He said the members had "no discussion, no changes" to the letter and initialed it after reading it.

"We need to get our contract straight," Ohlhaber said, explaining why the group didn't wait for an advertised meeting. "We shouldn't get tangled up in this kind of mechanics."

One of the committee members, Nelson, along with city resident Ralph Lickton and Ed Westcott, a colleague who is not a city resident, met with investigators from the state attorney's office late last week to outline concerns they have with the city's dealings with Skipper.

"About the only thing I can verify is we agreed to meet with these people and listen to the issues that they brought to our attention," said Lunsford, the investigator. "We're going to look into it and see if there's been any crime or violation, and we expressed doubt about that."

Lunsford would not specify what the state attorney is looking into with the city's contract, citing the pending investigation.

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