Rivergrass lawsuit filing, internal county memo raise conflict of interest questions
A lawsuit against Collier County over a controversial 1,000-acre village proposed east of Golden Gate Estates has taken another turn following allegations of conflict of interest involving a county official.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which sued the county in March after county commissioners approved plans for Rivergrass Village, on Monday filed a motion to exclude testimony from the county's planning and zoning director in the case because her son receives a college scholarship with ties to landowner Collier Enterprises, which is looking to develop the property, according to the motion.
"This is an obvious conflict of interest," lawyers for the Conservancy wrote in the motion.
Previous coverage:Rivergrass Village lawsuit scheduled for hearings
A June memo from County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow addresses the same questions about the scholarship but found only the appearance of a conflict of interest that Klatzkow advised represents a "very fine line."
The environmental group's lawsuit contends that the planned village, which would sit in the county's 185,000-acre Rural Lands Stewardship Area, does not follow the county's growth management plan.
The RLSA provides for a voluntary program that allows developers to build towns and villages in areas with lower conservation value in exchange for preserving more environmentally sensitive land.
In its motion to exclude testimony from Anita Jenkins, the county's current planning and zoning director, the Conservancy references Klatzkow's memo from June 12 titled "Ethics inquiry."
The three-page memo details the following:
Jenkins, then a community planning manager, contacted the county attorney's office via email on June 3, seeking guidance "on a potential conflict of interest."
"My son receives a substantial college scholarship each semester from the Collier Family Office, Inc., established by Miles Collier," Jenkins wrote. "Mr. Collier is also affiliated with Collier Enterprises."
Jenkins wrote that our "ethics direct us to avoid projects where we have an associated financial interest with the applicant, therefore I am not directly involved in commenting on individual Collier Enterprises projects."
She added that she occasionally sees emails on their projects where she's copied "as part of the supervisory chain of command."
Jenkins wrote that Collier Enterprises is "a property owner involved in larger planning efforts that affect multiple property owners," such as the RLSA. She wrote that her review of the county's planning ethics policies finds working on projects that affect multiple property owners equally would not constitute a conflict.
"Please advise," Jenkins wrote.
According to the memo, Jenkins' adult son is a student at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg with an academic scholarship.
"The scholarship does not include the additional costs of room and board, so Ms. Jenkins' son applied to Mr. Collier for an additional scholarship which he was awarded," the memo states.
It is not clear from the memo the value of the scholarship, how Jenkins' son qualified or how many are given out each year. Efforts to reach Jenkins were unsuccessful as of late Monday afternoon.
A Collier Enterprises spokeswoman said in an emailed statement to the Daily News Monday that there is "no connection whatsoever between the scholarship initiated two years ago by the Collier Family Office and the businesses of Collier Enterprises."
"We understand that Mr. Miles C. Collier has made a number of educational gifts to deserving students over the years," the statement from Collier Enterprises continues. "These are private initiatives of Mr. Collier and are unrelated to Collier Enterprises. We also understand that Ms. Jenkins proactively and transparently sought advice from the county attorney regarding Mr. Collier’s contribution to Eckerd College, as her adult son was an ultimate beneficiary. We understand that she received an opinion that there was no conflict of interest and no breach of the ethical code."
The county attorney's memo notes that the inquiry "raises potential issues with respect to both the State Ethics Code and the Collier County Ethics Ordinance."
In case you missed it:Collier Enterprises joins county's side in Conservancy's Rivergrass Village lawsuit
However, as far as the state ethics code is concerned, the executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics advised that there is no state ethics issue, the memo states.
State law regarding unauthorized compensation "specifically applies to an employee of a local government, like Ms. Jenkins, however the restriction does not include her adult child," according to the memo.
"In addition, there is no indication that the scholarship was provided to Ms. Jenkins' son in an attempt to influence a vote or other action by Ms. Jenkins," the memo states, noting that Jenkins has never met Collier.
"The Executive Director of the Florida Commission on Ethics advised that given these circumstances, there is no legal conflict, though arguably there might be the appearance of a conflict," Klatzkow and his assistant county attorney wrote. "Ms. Jenkins is aware to not provide any special consideration to Collier Enterprises as a result of her adult son’s scholarship."
Jenkins should continue to work with others when possible so that the recommendation is a department one rather than the recommendation of one person, the memo states.
The county's own ethics ordinance is more stringent than the state's code.
The county attorney's office found that as long as Jenkins continues to work as a community planning manager, "there is no violation" of the county's ethics ordinance, "although one could argue that there may be the appearance of impropriety."
But the memo further notes that during conversations between Klatzkow and Thaddeus Cohen, who heads the county's growth management department, "we were notified that Ms. Jenkins is being considered for a promotion to Interim Director of Planning."
That could change things, the memo notes, because Jenkins would then be considered a public official.
And per the county's ethics ordinance, a public official shall not solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, anything of monetary value from someone who the public official knows is seeking zoning, permitting or inspection approval from the county department or board with which the official is affiliated.
Although Jenkins herself is not accepting anything of value from Collier, Klatzkow wrote that he "views this as a very fine line," especially considering the "broad prohibitions" intended by the county's ordinance.
He urged Jenkins and Cohen, even though there is no legal conflict of interest, to review the matter with County Manager Leo Ochs "in an abundance of caution" before Jenkins accepts the position of interim director of planning and zoning.
By June 20, Jenkins was made interim planning and zoning division director and by Nov. 14 she was made the permanent director.
Voicemails left for Ochs were not immediately returned Monday. Klatzkow declined to comment Monday beyond what his memo says.
"The opinion stands for what it stands for and we'll leave it at that," he said.
In addition to asking for Jenkins' testimony in the court case to be excluded, the Conservancy's motion requests a "brief 60-day reopening of fact discovery limited to allowing the Conservancy to conduct any other discovery necessary to understand whether there are additional financial payments made from Miles Collier to County officials (or their families), or other conflicts of interest related to Rivergrass Village."
The motion also requests to allow the county to name a "new corporate designee" to cover the topics previously covered by Jenkins.
“The citizens of Collier County deserve to have confidence that County
employees are making objective, disinterested judgments about proposed development in this County, free from conflicts of interest and free from appearances of impropriety," Conservancy President and CEO Rob Moher said in an emailed statement, echoing the motion.
"Unfortunately, in the case of Rivergrass Village, this is not the case, and thus, the Conservancy had no choice but to file today’s motion.”
The memo at the heart of the motion has also drawn concern from at least one county commissioner.
Commissioner Penny Taylor said in a phone interview late last week that she intends to discuss the matter at Tuesday's commission meeting.
"The appearance of a conflict is terrible," she said. "And we can't let this stay."
The planning and zoning director touches everything and makes final decisions oftentimes on zoning issues that may not be as clear as they should be, Taylor said.
She said she didn't know how a planning and zoning director could recuse herself from major projects. Taylor said Jenkins' promotion should not have happened.
"I think that the county manager has to reconsider his decision in the light of our own Collier County ethics ordinance," she said.
Taylor said one can't separate Miles Collier from Collier Enterprises. "You can't," she said.
Collier Enterprises, in an amendment to its original statement to respond to Taylor's comment, said that Collier's private initiatives were "made without the company’s prior knowledge."
"Mr. Collier has not been involved with the day-to-day management of Collier Enterprises for a very long time, having retired as its CEO in 1993 and then from its board of directors in 2011," the revised statement continued.
The county's ethics ordinance was written in the wake of the Stadium Naples scandal that rocked the commission two decades ago and is a "strong" ordinance, Taylor said.
"But it's there so the public has confidence" in how we run our business, she said.