MARCO ISLAND — Pending conflict of interest complaints against three members of the city’s committee studying takeover of Lee County Electric Cooperative stem around letters of intent to do business between LCEC and the Marco-based solar firm, United Energy Technology. Three leaders in the UET solar firm also serve on the city’s electric municipalization committee studying takeover of LCEC.
Resident Bill McMullan said he mailed the complaints Tuesday to the Florida Commission on Ethics against three members of the electric municipalization committee because of the “conflict of interest.” The Commission on Ethics has not yet received the complaints.
UET, the Marco-based solar firm proposing solar power projects with the Collier County School Board, has sent and received letters of intent to do business with LCEC. Three leaders in the UET firm, CEO Gary Elliott, Vice President Monte Lazarus and Jack Patterson, all serve on the city’s committee studying a potential takeover of LCEC.
Lazarus also serves on the city’s planning board, which Community Development Director Steve Olmsted said Thursday will not be charged with rezoning the Island land known as Tract K owned by the Collier County School District where UET proposes a solar project. Conditional use permits would likely be reviewed by the Planning Board, he said.
Lazarus said he would not vote on the matter if it came before him.
Councilman Ted Forcht said he didn’t believe the Planning Board would be conflicted by any interest Lazarus has with Tract K.
“These guys all have a mind of their own,” Forcht said.
They will think for themselves and base their decisions on legal facts, he added.
Lazarus said he didn’t believe the electric municipalization committee was formed to come to conclusions, but rather to gather information on the city’s prospects of taking over the electric company, LCEC.
“If we were on a decision-making committee, I’d recuse myself,” Lazarus said.
The Ad Hoc Electric Municipalization Committee has been described by City Council as a “working committee.”
The committee did however vote 16-2 in favor of advising City Council hire a consultant to study taking over LCEC and then subsequently voted unanimously to rescind that recommendation. Committee members Linda McCune and Ron Bales were the only two members to initially recommend City Council oppose hiring the consultant for the takeover.
Before City Manager Steve Thompson had seen the complaint reports he said in general terms that it didn’t appear to be a legal issue for Patterson, Lazarus and Elliott to serve on the committee.
“They are neither employees nor public officials. They’re just volunteers for the city. They don’t make any decisions. They don’t spend any money,” Thompson said.
Upon reviewing some of the background of the complaints, Thompson said Thursday that’s he is “personally still not yet convinced there is an ethics problem.”
Thompson pointed out that his interpretation is not particularly relevant to any outcome.
“I personally believe (McMullan) is misinterpreting (Chapter 112, Part III of the Florida Statute’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees) There’s a state process to follow and that’s why we have the process,” Thompson said.
He added that it will be up to the State Attorney’s Office for interpretation.
“Advisory committees frequently include individuals and representatives from groups to be regulated — in other words, people and businesses that will benefit from or be hurt by the legislation are included in the advisory committee,” Thompson wrote in an e-mail on the issue to McMullan, City Council and the Eagle [See today’s Letter To The Editor section].
Since the three men are not city officials, they are not represented by City Attorney Alan Gabriel in the matter and the complaint will not likely have a direct taxpayer expense in terms of legal counsel.
Gabriel said the issue may come down to whether an “enumeration of gain” can be determined.
At this time there is not a direct financial impact on UET regarding business with LCEC because UET as a firm has not performed a single energy project yet.
The business LCEC agreed to engage in with UET is not specific at this time, said LCEC spokeswoman Karen Ryan.
“They did approach us and ask us if we’d be interested in providing maintenance on their future projects,” Ryan said.
She added that when LCEC CEO Dennie Hamilton spoke with Elliott and Lazarus about business, UET “did not have anything defined.”
Hamilton’s response to UET was a general statement of “we’re interested in hearing your plans,” Ryan said.
She added that the letter of intent to do business was to assist the firm as they put in a bid for a solar project at Florida Gulf Coast University.
“The owners (of UET) believed LCEC could lend some credibility to their bids,” Ryan said.
Jerry Gibson, chairman of the city’s electric municipalization committee, said at this point he was not clear on the justification for a conflict of interest or ethics complaints.
“If the conflict is that these three had a potential vested interest, well then that logic would carry over to all the members of the committee. This is a cooperative, we’re all part owners of LCEC,” Gibson said.
Patterson, a former mayor and municipal liaison in business, said he didn’t believe there was a conflict of interest.
“This is the politics of destruction. If you can’t win on the merits, destroy the people involved,” Patterson said of the actions against him.
Elliott and Lazarus agreed.
“This is malicious use of due process,” Lazarus said.
Elliott said it would not matter who owned or operated the electric utility in terms of UET’s progress in solar projects.
McMullan is not the only resident who has perceived a conflict of interest regarding Lazarus’s involvement in the Planning Board, city’s electric takeover committee and UET.
“Monte Lazarus, who sits on the planning board as you know, slaps the face of city planning by being party to UET. This is an act of defiance. Also, this is a definite conflict of interest that smacks of impropriety,” resident Frances Enman wrote to the Eagle Jan. 19.
Enman added that she was particularly concerned that members of city’s committees are involved for the best interest of all residents, not just for their own interest.
Check back to marconews.com and upcoming issues of the Eagle for the ethics commission’s reception of these complaints once the documents have been delivered.