Sturgess asks OHPA to let its attorney do research on his rival

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A political rivalry was brought up at the latest Ocean Highway and Port Authority meeting when Chairman Bob Sturgess asked fellow commissioners to allow OHPA attorney Jeb Branham to research whether a conflict of interest is posed by Miriam Hill, who is running against Sturgess for his seat.

Hill has worked for the city of Fernandina Beach as a special magistrate for Code Enforcement and as an alternate attorney in cases in which City Attorney Tammi Bach could not represent the city.  She also briefly represented OHPA after Clyde Davis resigned as the body’s attorney in 2018.

At the time of her hire by OHPA, she presented a waiver to the commissioners stating that, as long as she was “serving as OHPA’s General Counsel, I would not be able to serve as Special Magistrate or outside counsel to the City in any matters directly involving OHPA.”

Hill told the News-Leader she has not worked for Fernandina Beach since the spring of 2019.

She has not represented OHPA since January 2019, when commissioners hired Jeb Branham over her to permanently replace Davis.

Sturgess told the OHPA commissioners he was not asking for them to make a decision on a conflict of interest, “but whether there is an appearance of impropriety that may justify some type of action.” He said he only wants the port’s attorney to look into the matter.

Branham said the Florida Bar could potentially regulate the issue.

Francine Walker, communications director for the Florida Bar, told the News-Leader the organization could not comment on the matter, as it would require an investigation into the specific situation involved.

When the News-Leader spoke with Hill, she questioned whether an investigation is a prudent use of taxpayer funds, calling Sturgess’ request a “misdirection.”

“The real issue is why public dollars are being spent investigating a candidate,” Hill said. “If elected, I would never use public money to investigate a political opponent. What if the burden was put on (City Attorney) Tammi Bach to run down political candidates for City Commission?”

Kerrie Stillman, deputy director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, said the question of whether the port should spend money on an attorney to find out if Hill would have a conflict of interest as a commissioner is outside the jurisdiction of that body. As to the conflict of interest, Stillman said the Commission on Ethics could not provide an opinion as the issue could come before the commission by way of an opinion request from an official or a complaint.

Branham said one issue of conflict could be the use of information to the detriment of a former client. “That’s a rule of professional responsibility,” he said. “That’s probably a little bit more attenuated. I don’t know what the opinion would come out on. It’s certainly unusual for a former attorney to run for an office on that governmental entity shortly after serving as the attorney. There’s no express prohibition on it. I think there’s a good chance the agencies that regulate the issue would say that’s a political question resolved at the ballot box.”

Branham said he estimated he would need to spend two hours looking into whether Hill’s candidacy poses a conflict. He is paid $200 per hour by the port. The commission voted unanimously to have Branham look into the matter.

Hill said that she has a well-established reputation in the community and that her ethics are “well established.”

“It is disappointing and unfortunate that this is taking away from the real issues facing the port,” she said.

The OHPA also voted to accept an offer from port operator Worldwide Terminals Fernandina to settle an account for thousands of dollars less than it was owed, but over the strong objection of one OHPA board member.

Worldwide pays OHPA $251,674 annually in fees to operate the port, paid in quarterly installments. Those payments have been behind, with Worldwide owing OHPA three quarterly payments that total $188,756. At its May 13 meeting, Worldwide CEO Christopher Ragucci said the company had received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, part of a financial package provided by the federal government to help businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. At $175,000, though, the loan fell short by $13,756 of the total owed to OHPA. In addition, Branham billed the port $6,160 for time spent negotiating the deal with Ragucci.

“With the $13,756 discount, and the $6,160 Mr. Branham has incurred, that’s $19,916,” Commissioner Carrol Franklin said. “That’s a $20,000 loss. We don’t have it in our budget to take a loss. We don’t have the money in our budget for extra attorney fees.”

“This is the best we can do,” Ragucci said. “The alternative is to continue to bleed this thing out, month-to-month. We think that it’s close enough that it’s in everyone’s interest to get the money in hand, in your bank account, and let’s just move in good standing together.”

Ragucci said he does not have the authority to commit to paying the additional $13,756 in the future.

Worldwide’s payments to OHPA have stayed behind, but the company has been making extra payments to bring those up to date, including extra payments in April to pay for the third quarter of 2019. There is also $55,000 outstanding on a maintenance fund Worldwide pays to the port at the rate of $5,000 per month. Ragucci said Worldwide has paid $127,069 toward projects at the port, which “obviously, divided by $5,000, is many more months than are currently open.”

As part of the package Worldwide was offering the port, he asked that those 11 months of maintenance fees be forgiven, and the maintenance fees for the rest of 2020 be allocated to projects such as a dredging project currently underway at the port.

Ragucci also asked the board to issue a certificate stating that Worldwide Terminals Fernandina and OHPA are in good standing on their operating agreement through June 30, 2020. He said the certificate would illustrate the company’s financial stability to potential customers.

Franklin, however, said he did not believe the package offered by Ragucci was a good deal for the port.

“Every dollar we’ve got out of you has been a struggle,” Franklin said. “And you want us to say you are doing everything in good faith and good standing? That’s like giving a person a good credit report when he’s got lousy credit.”

“I have to take issue with your characterization that we only pay because you force us to pay,” Ragucci said. “We only pay what we can pay. We went out of our way to (obtain) a loan from the government. If it weren’t for the COVID situation, we might not even be in the position to offer this money. We would still be struggling to catch up, month by month.”

Ragucci assured the board that Worldwide would keep its payments current after paying the $175,000.

Commissioner Mike Cole said he believes OHPA and Worldwide need to work together, and supported accepting the package in order to move forward, as did Commissioner Scott Hanna. OHPA’s accountant noted that there is enough money in reserves to cover the loss of $13,756.

The motion to accept the package offered by Worldwide passed 4-1, with Franklin casting the dissenting vote.

In his port operator report, Ragucci said Worldwide has a new customer, Swedish shipping firm SCA, which Ragucci said is Europe’s single largest forest products producer. SCA left the port at Brunswick, Ga. to come to Fernandina Beach, Ragucci said. The first vessel, which discharged 7,000 tons of wood pulp, will start a seven-week rotation. That business is projected to grow to 100,000 tons per year.

Ragucci, who also acts as port director, said the port is facing $5 million in losses in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that none of the 50 people working at the port have been furloughed or laid off.

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com