Ragucci and Franklin lock horns over lawsuit

  • Worldwide Terminals Fernandina CEO and Port of Fernandina director Christopher Ragucci said total tonnage at the port was up from 11,251 tons in May to 38,415 in June. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    Worldwide Terminals Fernandina CEO and Port of Fernandina director Christopher Ragucci said total tonnage at the port was up from 11,251 tons in May to 38,415 in June. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER

Worldwide Terminals Fernandina CEO and Port of Fernandina director Christopher Ragucci feels he has been abused and does not intend to take more of it. He pushed back on what he deemed questions of his credibility at a recent Ocean Highway and Port Authority meeting.

At their July 8 meeting, the OPHA board discussed a lawsuit filed by TranSystems, maritime engineer consultants to the port, against Worldwide and OHPA. The suit claims the firm has not been paid by WTF, which operates the port. The balance TranSystems is billing OHPA for is $184,662. Port Attorney Jeb Branham suggested OHPA and Worldwide enter into mediation in the matter.

OHPA Commissioner Carrol Franklin asked Ragucci if he had compiled a list of the issues between TranSystems and the port. Ragucci said, “We will be sorting it all out in the litigation.” Ragucci said he had begun an outline of that list and had asked for a meeting with Franklin but would not be giving Franklin that list.

“When (Franklin) texted me, asking for it, the fact of the matter is he texted me on a joint text, with Rick Ferrin (vice president of TranSystems) on the text,” Ragucci said. “My lawyerly instincts told me at that point that perhaps it was a setup and litigation was coming. It seems to me that you were having conversations privately with representatives of TranSystems as they were about to sue OHPA.”

“I have talked to TranSystems,” Franklin said. “I’m trying to find out what’s going on.”

“We asked Chris for a list of (problems) and he can’t give them to us or won’t give them to us. We are going to be in a lawsuit, and who is going to end up paying? Worldwide or OHPA or who? OHPA will end up paying.”

Branham said it was unknown who would pay for that suit.

“This is (Worldwide’s) problem. We will deal with it, and we have to pay,” Ragucci said. “Who pays your salary, Commissioner Franklin? Worldwide’s payments to OHPA.”

At that point, Ragucci and Franklin began talking over each other, and OHPA Chairman Danny Fullwood used his gavel to break up the argument.

But Ragucci was not finished.

“These omnibus attacks and questioning my credibility – I wont’ accept it,” he said. “I don’t have to attend here and subject myself and
my firm to this kind of abuse. Clearly, Mr. Franklin has other agendas on his mind. His only agenda should be how do we help the port, how do we support the port operator, because we
are a partnership. Without that support, what is it he does as a port commissioner, I ask. I gave you my word that I would do my best to prevent the litigation from happening and I did.
The problem is TranSystems didn’t want to cooperate.”

The commission directed Branham to pursue mediation in the matter.

Ragucci also took exception to the commission’s handling of a different project – the erection on port property of a warehouse built from fabric.

Ragucci had plans to build two 30,000-square-foot warehouses at the port, and last year a $26.6 million loan, in the form of two bond issues, was approved to be used to pay for a variety of capital improvements to expand port operations, including those warehouses. Later, it was discovered that building the warehouses at the proposed sites was financially unfeasible.

At the meeting, Ragucci introduced Dustin McCormick, a sales representative with Big Top Fabric Structures, which was chosen by Worldwide to erect a tent to be used as a warehouse.  McCormick said the structure would be 70 feet by 220 feet and withstand up to 110 mph winds. The tent has a 20-year warranty on the fabric and 25 years on the frame. Ragucci was asking the OHPA commission for their approval of the $298,368 contract for the building.

Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Chip Ross addressed the OHPA and said he spoke to the Fernandina Beach building official to see if the tent was up to city code since the port lies in city limits. He said the building official expressed doubts about the building. 

OHPA Commissioner Scott Hannah asked Ragucci if he had contacted the city about installing the structure. Ragucci said Worldwide planned to submit the plans to the city and “listen and respond to any concerns they may have, and, where feasible, address any of those concerns.” Ragucci said the port’s charter states the port is exempt from having to comply with city building codes, and the building is designed to comply with Florida’s building codes.

Section 12 of the port’s charter reads, in part, “It shall not be necessary for the authority to obtain any certificate of convenience or necessity, franchise, license, permit, or other authorization thereof from any county, municipality, or political subdivision of the state.”

However, Florida statute 553.72 (2) says, “Local governments shall have the power to inspect all buildings, structures and facilities within their jurisdictions in protection of the public health, safety and welfare.”

Branham suggested OHPA sign the contract subject to approval by the city, and then reevaluate the building if the city objects. Ragucci said that, while “that is one way to go,” there is no requirement to have a permit. He said he did not want the contract contingent upon a permit, as there is a time constraint. Ragucci said there is a ship due to come into the port with 15,000 tons of woodpulp in mid-August, and he needs the warehouse in place to hold the woodpulp.

“This is built and certified to Florida state code and for the most part it is going to meet or exceed any local code, other than local codes that are there for, I don’t know, reasons of harassment or whatever you want to call it,” Ragucci said.

Commissioners wanted to ensure the port would not be responsible for any third-party inspections that would be required for the tent. Ragucci
noted that Big Top has engineers on staff that can inspect and verify that the warehouse meets building codes.

“Why are you trying to complicate this?” he asked the commissioners. “We are an independent legislative district. Let’s just build it under Florida code. We will work with the city, as the chairman suggests, as a courtesy and to be good neighbors, and I don’t think there will be any major issues here.”

The OHPA commissioner unanimously approved the contract.