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.