WATER BOARD

South Florida water managers’ murky billboard deal raises concerns

 

A bill with mysterious origins gave a former board member of the South Florida Water Management District a chance to make millions with billboards on public lands.

Palm Beach Post

The South Florida Water Management District is getting into the billboard business and has picked a company owned by a former board member and former business partner of the executive director to build digital signs on its lands.

The contract between the district and Florida Communication Advisors, owned by former board member Harkley Thornton, comes after Tallahassee lawmakers enacted a funding bill with a last-minute provision to allow — and recommend — “public information systems” on land owned by the state’s five water management districts.

Once the 2012 law passed, the South Florida district moved swiftly to award contracts to FCA and another firm.

Environmentalists and even some of the district’s board members have expressed dismay that its land will be used for ads.

“We’re about flood control and it just seems we’re taking on this issue and this responsibility in hopes we might make a few dollars,” governing board member James Moran said at meeting in December. “In all due respect to folks here in the sign business … it’s not the business of the South Florida Water Management District.”

Just who was behind the measure remains a mystery but several things are known:

• Thornton not only has ties to the district and its executive director but also is a close friend of former House Speaker Dean Cannon, who was in charge when the bill passed.

• Public records do not identify who slipped the billboard provision into the funding bill.

• Neither the lobbyist for the Florida billboard industry’s trade association nor the district’s legislative director say they knew about the billboard initiative before it passed.

• Nowhere in the law does the words “billboard” or “sign” appear. Instead, the phrase “public information system” is used.

After the bill passed, district staff briefed the board without mentioning billboards and instead focused on the potential profit and public awareness that could be raised by displaying public service announcements about district services, drought restrictions, flood warnings or Amber Alerts.

But the board learned in December that under the proposed contracts, such announcements would be placed on the billboards as little as 5 percent of the time, with 95 percent allotted to commercial ads.

The district’s cut remains under negotiation but officials say they hope for at least 15 percent of the revenues.

Thornton is an Orlando billboard executive who also has outdoor advertising companies in Ohio and Louisiana.

As recently as 2011, he was a business partner of Melissa Meeker, the district’s executive director, who previously served with him on the governing board.

He also is a Republican fundraiser and was chairman of Cannon’s political spending committee in 2010, the Florida Liberty Fund.

Thornton said he knew of no backroom deals in getting the law passed or favoritism in the contract. He had been off the governing board since 2008, well beyond the district’s two-year ban on doing business with the district. .

“I haven’t done anything with the district in five years, and to insinuate I’ve done something wrong isn’t fair,” Thornton said.

The lobbyist for the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association, Pete Dunbar, said that the industry group wasn’t aware of the billboard provision until after the bill passed.

Ernie Barnett, the district’s legislative affairs director at the time, also said he also wasn’t aware of the provision.

Thornton started FCA last August — a month after the billboard law took effect.

“The Legislature made this available to water management districts to get the message out and make money,” Thornton said. His company stands to make millions through the pilot project, which allows 10 billboards to be installed this year and 20 more in 2014.

The tab for building and managing the “public information systems” — estimated to cost $500,000 each — would be paid by the vendors. The district would own the signs and keep a percentage of the revenues.

Cannon last week acknowledged a longtime friendship with Thornton. Cannon, who now runs a Tallahassee consulting firm, denied using his influence to insert the billboard language in the bill.

“People are going to do what they can in this process,” Cannon said. “But as speaker, I was looking at bigger issues. My goal was to not major in the minors when it came to issues.”

However, former Sen. Paula Dockery, who sat on the Senate Budget Committee where the bill and provision originated, recalled Cannon’s office pushing the amendment. “The speaker of the House wanted Appropriations to do it,” Dockery said. “My understanding is that it came out of the speaker’s office.”

The billboard provision was tacked onto must-pass legislation for the water districts just before the final, unanimous vote on the bill, which was meant to undo a budget-slashing bill passed a year earlier. That law put severe limits on the districts’ ability to raise money through property taxes and resulted in hundreds of workers losing their jobs.

The 2012 bill came about after weeks of negotiations among water managers, environmentalists, lawmakers, the Department of Environmental Protection and the governor’s office.

Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida who was involved with negotiations, said he first learned of the billboard provision when he read the final version of the bill. Audubon had already been lobbying for the bill, which it hoped would provide more money to the districts for restoration and research.

“I guess we could have stood up and said, ‘Don’t pass this bill,’ ” Lee said. “The rest of the bill was so crucial it wouldn’t have been a practical course of action.”

The bill took effect July 1 and water district staff briefed their board about the law on July 12. Tommy Strowd, the district’s director of operations, maintenance and construction, referred to the brightly illuminated, digital signs only as “public information systems,” as they are described in the new law.

Audubon’s Lee described the phrase as “stealth language” and said that, coupled with the promise of public service announcements, it served as a “moving shield’’ that protected the real intent of the measure.

“It was incredibly well thought out,” he said. “A sly move.”

Besides Thornton’s company, FCA, three other companies submitted bids: CBS Outdoor, with 3,480 outdoor advertising permits in Florida; The Lamar Company LLC, with 4,263 permits; and Sign Pro of North Florida, with fewer than 250 permits. FCA also has fewer than 250.

On Dec. 31, The Lamar Co. filed a protest over the district’s selection of FCA, claiming FCA had neither the experience nor financial wherewithal to build and operate large, digital billboards.

On Jan. 7, Lamar dropped its complaint after district staff said they would recommend Lamar be awarded the contract for the southern portion of the state, from Fort Lauderdale to Naples, along with Collier County, north to Fort Myers. Thornton’s territory would include a dozen other counties, including Orange, with Orlando and Kissimmee, St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach and part of Broward.

“They won and they should get the pick of the litter,” Thornton said about Lamar scoring highest in the bidding and getting the more profitable southern counties.

Palm Beach Post staff writer John Kennedy contributed to this story.

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