PORT ST. LUCIE — Florida Inland Navigation District officials have changed their meeting and travel expense practices at least partly in response to a series of stories by Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers.
FIND officials will book monthly meetings at less expensive venues, tighten up on travel expenses and improve public notification about community events and the construction of sediment processing facilities, said David Roach, the district’s executive director, in a memo responding to the stories.
The FIND commissioners spent nearly a half-hour Saturday morning discussing the suggestions in Roach’s memo and related issues raised by the district’s auditor and attorney. The meeting was held at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott in St. Lucie West.
The Scripps Newspapers stories included disclosures that FIND spent $459 for a hotel room in Washington, D.C., during a district official’s lobbying trip and $254 per room for district officials attending a commission meeting in Miami. Roach’s memo noted. The 12-county district typically holds commission meetings in a hotel in a different county each month.
“Staff will work to ensure that we continue to book the hotels that can adequately accommodate our meeting needs at reasonable rates while staying away from those hotels that create the perception of extravagance,” Roach said in the memo.
The FIND commissioners voted 8-1 to give Roach the power to “authorize travel and make decisions about the most economical method of travel in accordance with (Florida Statutes) for staff and commissioners.”
The commissioners delegated that authority to Roach based on advice from the district’s auditor, J.W. Gaines of Fort Pierce, and its attorney, Peter Breton of West Palm Beach, to comply with state laws regulating public spending on travel expenses for public officials.
“As we’re presently handling this, we’re not complying with the law,” said FIND Commissioner Nancy Freeman, who represents Volusia County. “I don’t think the system is broken, I don’t think we should over fix it, but this is a legal point that we need to clear up. There isn’t a person on this board that’s going to do something or submit something that’s out of line.”
The commissioners should confer with Roach if they plan to book a flight to attend a commission meeting, instead of renting a car or using their own vehicle, Roach and Breton said.
The Scripps Newspapers stories also included disclosures that FIND paid for flights for FIND Commissioner T. Spencer Crowley III, who represents Miami-Dade County, to commission meetings in Nassau and Duval counties at the northern end of the 12-county district. FIND also paid for Crowley’s flights to Orlando and Tallahassee.
“It’s not only a question of a commissioner or the executive director, but outside agencies or our auditor general questioning payment of airfare and the issue could come in, ‘well, was that the most economical method for that particular trip and did the agency head make that determination?’ ” Breton said. “If you want to deviate from what’s become the norm — taking your own privately owned vehicle or renting a car and paying the gas — that just to protect yourself, bulletproof your expense report, that you bounce it off of your designee being David.”
Taking a two-hour flight from Miami to Jacksonville could be considered a more economic method of travel than driving for eight hours because the commissioner’s time is taken into account, Breton said.
Crowley, the lone dissenter on the vote, argued it would be a waste of time to ask Roach for permission any time he wants to book a flight for FIND business.
“This doesn’t make sense to me,” Crowley said. “It’s idiotic.”
In a related issue, FIND commissioners voted unanimously to require all vouchers for reimbursement of travel expenses to be submitted within 90 days.
Roach said the FIND commissioners will hold their May 18 meeting in Miami, instead of Indian River County, so they can attend the Volvo Ocean Race, which is a global sailing race. The FIND commissioners will meet in Indian River County on Aug. 18.
Earlier during Saturday’s meeting, two Sebastian area homeowners, Gary Kaczinski and Frank Marshall, raised questions about the need for a $3.3 million sediment processing facility and a $1.7 million dredging project in northern Indian River County.
The Scripps Newspaper series about FIND also reported the questions about the need for the sediment facility and dredging project.
When Kaczinski questioned Roach about the details of the testing of the sediment that will be dredged, FIND Commissioner Bruce Barkett, who represents Indian River County, objected.
“I resent that you’re going to come in here and try do a cross examination of a project right now that’s not on the agenda,” Barkett said.
Kaczinski then showed the FIND commissioners Army Corps survey charts showing the Intracoastal Waterway is at least 10 feet deep in northern Indian River County and said the public’s objections to the sediment facility and dredging project have been “ignored.”
After the public speaking portion of the meeting, Shelley Trulock, the Army Corps’ project manager for the Intracoastal Waterway, said the completion date for the sediment processing facility has been pushed back to June so additional work can be done on roads on the site.
“It’s coming along well,” Trulock said.
After Saturday’s meeting, Roach said he did not need to address the need for the sediment facility and dredging project in his memo about the Scripps Newspapers stories. Roach also reiterated his position that the sediment processing facility and dredging project are needed to maintain a safe depth in the Intracoastal Waterway so boaters don’t run aground on build ups of sand washing in from the Sebastian Inlet.
“We still think we need to build dredged material management areas for our waterway as soon as possible,” Roach said. “Otherwise there’s a lot of problems, just like we’re having.”
How the Florida Inland Navigation District commissioners and district staff changed the way they conduct business at least in part in response to a series of stories by Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers:
Travel expense issues
• “We will seek to find hotels with fewer fees and lower room rates that can still meet our needs.”
• “Staff will work to ensure that we continue to book the hotels that can adequately accommodate our meeting needs at reasonable rates while staying away from hotels that create the perception of extravagance.”
• “Staff will continue to advise commissioners traveling by air to get their tickets early when possible to keep the cost down.”
• When commissioners rent vehicles to travel to meetings “we will continue to advise commissioners to get the most economical vehicle that meets the transportation needs of a particular trip.”
• “Travel expenses by district staff (will be) paid with district credit cards and not itemized on travel reimbursement vouchers.”
• “All (commissioners’) vouchers for reimbursement of travel expenses must be completed and submitted within 90 days of travel.”
• FIND Commissioners delegate the authority to the executive director to “authorize travel and make decisions about the most economical method of travel in accordance with (statute) 112.061, (Florida Statutes) for staff and commissioners.”
“The executive director will not pay any district expenses (such as for tree trimming at the district office and a state permit fee for a project) again unless there is an emergency.”
Community outreach events
• “To ensure better community outreach, staff is increasing the waterway information available at the events, incorporating more presentations and placing display advertisements in local papers.”
• “We will be running display ads and providing a notice for community calendar in the local newspaper to try to increase general public attendance.”
• “Staff feels the cost is reasonable for the benefit and we will continue to seek ways to reduce the costs for these events.”
Public notice about construction of sediment processing facilities
“In the future, to go above and beyond the legal requirement, the staff has suggested using a modified (Florida Department of Transportation) Public Information Meeting format to provide more notice to our neighbors and the community prior to a construction event.
Source: FIND agenda packet for Feb. 18, 2012 meeting)
Sebastian area sediment facility
The Florida Inland Navigation District is building an earthen dike near Sebastian to process sediment dredged from the Intracoastal Waterway in northern Indian River County.
Location: 9900 to 10470 U.S. 1, two miles south of Sebastian.
Site size: 179.45 acres
Containment basin: 32.63 acres
Basin capacity: 428,000 cubic yards
Construction dates: February 2011 through June 2012
Dredging project: 2012/2013
Amount to be dredged: 400,000 cubic yards