February 6, 2013

Judge orders state to release emails in suit over Gov. Scott's plan for Tallahassee park

Some governors left bronze statues behind. Others contributed a library or a sun room to the Governors’ Mansion.

Some governors left bronze statues behind. Others contributed a library or a sun room to the Governors’ Mansion.

Gov. Rick Scott envisions a legacy that would create Governor’s Park, across a six block by three and a half block area in downtown Tallahassee.

The boundaries of the proposal are contained in a memo and maps that state officials attempted to withhold from disclosure in a lawsuit filed by Tallahassee lawyer Steve Andrews as part of a fight over land that once belonged to Gov. LeRoy Collins.

Citing Florida’s public records law, a judge ordered release of documents that outline the park plan after reviewing 120 records that the Department of Environmental Protection tried to shield from public view.

"After conducting an in camera inspection of 120 emails, the court finds that 105 emails were public records … and improperly withheld from the plaintiff after a public records request,’’ Circuit Judge John Cooper wrote in his Jan. 29 order.

Andrews sought the records after filing a lawsuit against Scott and 15 other officials involved in the state’s attempt to block him from buying land where his office is located. The land in question is owned by the Collins estate and fronts Monroe Street, the north-south thoroughfare through the heart of the capital city.

The proposed park would surround the Governor’s Mansion and an adjacent site known as The Grove, the ancestral home of territorial Gov. Richard Keith Call and the final home of the Collins family.

The state bought the Collins home in 1985 with plans to create a museum and visitors center. Maps included in the email released Wednesday indicate that the park would include both mansions and about 120 additional lots now in private ownership in an area between Monroe and Bronough streets.

Andrews signed a contract to buy his office building for $580,000 after then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning signed a letter rejecting the state’s right of first refusal to buy the property. Scott’s office objected at the last minute, and Scott and the Cabinet voted to buy it a year ago in spite of the contract between Andrews and the Collins estate.

The lawsuit grinds on, with more than a dozen lawyers representing various state agencies and a separate lawsuit filed by Scott and the Cabinet against John Aurell, Collins’ son-in-law and executor of the Collins estate. The judge has rejected state accusations of fraud and breach of contract against Aurell, calling them without merit.

Andrews said the state will spend some $10-million if it proceeds with the park plan as outlined.

"It’s a lot of money when you think that Governor Collins’ legacy is that he was the first southern governor to advocate publicly for the passage of civil rights legislation,’’ Andrews said. "Even Gov. Charlie Crist refused to do repairs and paint the Governor’s Mansion because so many people in the state were losing their homes to foreclosure.’’

A spokeswoman for Scott did not respond to questions about the cost of the plan or explain why the records were withheld from public view.

The tradition of governors enhancing the mansion is longstanding. Some redecorated; others added a pool, tennis courts, fencing and a garage, often at state expense.

Since Gov. Bob Graham’s wife Adele created a private foundation, additions have mostly been paid for with private donations. The Grahams built a large sun room on the north side of the mansion.

Former Gov. Bob Martinez raised money for a bronze manatee sculpture on mansion grounds, and former Gov. Lawton Chiles left a large bronze sculpture of children walking on a log. Former Gov. Jeb Bush used his fundraising ability to add a library.

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