Brent Batten: Brock is county's trustee sidekick

BRENT BATTEN
Dwight Brock

Dwight Brock

It has all the markings of one of those spitting matches between the Collier County commissioners and Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock in which millions of dollars are at stake, attorneys are paid to haggle over fine points of law and taxpayers, who are footing the bill, don’t benefit from the outcome.

Only it isn’t.

Millions of dollars are at stake, attorneys are haggling over fine points of law and taxpayers, who are footing the bill, won’t see much of a benefit either way, but it isn’t a spitting match between Collier County commissioners and Brock.

This time, Brock and the commissioners are on the same side, jousting with the federal government over management of a wildlife preservation area the county bought in 2007.

The Caracara Prairie Preserve, also known as the Starnes Property because Circuit Court Judge Hugh Starnes held an ownership interest, is 368 acres north of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary purchased for $5.3 million. Presence of the land in the county inventory was meant to offset environmental damage done by the widening of Oil Well Road in the eyes of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the plan hasn’t worked out, largely because the federal government is having trouble getting its head around the concept that Brock, the Clerk of Courts, is an independent entity not beholden to the county commissioners.

As a result, last week the county approved the purchase of panther habitat mitigation units totaling $1.8 million from Barron Collier Co. to make up for the wildlife mitigation not realized at Caracara Prairie Preserve.

For more than a year the county has been trying to get the federal government to accept the idea that Brock, who is elected independently of the county commission and serves as the trustee of all its funds, can act as a third party trustee of the Caracara property.

So far, no luck, although the sides appear to be getting closer.

The feds insist a third party oversee a preservation area when a county wants to use it to offset damage done by a road or other public work. That ensures the environmental benefits are real. Normally, a non-profit agency might serve as that trustee but Brock, as anyone who recalls his legal battles with the county commission can attest, is highly protective of his role as the trustee of county assets.

Getting the Wildlife Service to acknowledge that role has been a challenge. “The Service appears to have applied a one size fits all legal approach that fundamentally fails to appreciate that the clerk is the most appropriate entity to serve as the county’s trustee,” Assistant County Attorney Jennifer White wrote to the U.S. Interior Department lawyer late last year.

“The problem with the whole process from the federal government’s perspective, they had never run across the scenario where government was attempting to do this,” Brock said. “The feds started taking the position we had to pay someone to be the trustee.”

County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow, who faced off against Brock in past legal skirmishes, is on the same side now. “I happen to agree with that position,” he said of Brock’s argument. “The feds didn’t recognize the distinction between the clerk and the county commission.”

With no agreement, the county had to go to its backup plan, buy panther mitigation credits from Barron Collier Co. last week. The move became more controversial when Commissioner Georgia Hiller suggested the county not buy the credits from Barron Collier, with which it had a contract, and seek a lower price elsewhere. Her colleagues on the board decided to honor the contract with Barron Collier Co. and spend the $1.8 million

But Klatzkow said the money isn’t necessarily lost. He expressed confidence the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will eventually recognize Brock as an independent trustee of the Caracara land. When it does, the environmental mitigation credits that go with the land can be used to offset the cost of future county construction. “They’re not going to go to waste. Unless this economic depression goes on indefinitely, we’ve got a lot of projects,” Klatzkow said, citing the eastward extension of Vanderbilt Beach Road as one possibility. “We’re going to need panther habitat units for the next 20 to 30 years.”

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features