Rayonier offers new evidence in suit against county
Rayonier Inc. and Raydient LLC filed a motion Monday with the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court asking for permission to amend a previous complaint alleging that Nassau County acted illegally in responding to public records requests and violated Florida’s Sunshine Law. According to the amendment, new information was gathered from depositions taken from former and current county employees. The original suit, filed Feb. 6, alleges “the county’s repeated failure to produce records directly responsive to an October 12, 2018 public records request and seeks, among other things, declaratory and mandamus relief, the immediate production of all responsive records, the recovery of any deleted records, and an award of Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and costs in prosecuting this.”
The October 2018 request asked for “any and all” documents and correspondence including emails and text messages from June 1, 2016, until Oct. 12, 2018 between county commissioners Pat Edwards, Danny Leeper, and Justin Taylor, former commissioners George Spicer and Steve Kelley, County Manager and County Attorney Mike Mullin, former county manager Shanea Jones, former Office of Management and Budget director Justin Stankiewicz, and other key staff relating to the East Nassau Community Planning Area and public facilities and parks there.
It also asked for documents and correspondence related to mobility fees and agreements, the Municipal Services Tax Unit ordinance the county passed in 2018, and legislation related to the creation of the East Nassau Stewardship District, among other subjects.
While still wearing his county attorney hat, Mullin was appointed interim county manager in July 2018 and was formally named as the county’s dual attorney and manager in January.
Mullin sent the public records complaint to the county’s insurance carrier, the Florida Association of Counties Trust, which hired Nabors, Giblin & Nickerson, P.A., a Tallahassee firm, to handle the case.
County employees and county commissioners have specifically been accused of withholding text messages. The claim also states county employees were advised by Mullin to delete messages from their phones. Former Management and Budget director Justin Stankiewicz maintains he was fired because he refused to do so.
“At this point these are just allegations,” Mullin told the News-Leader.
If the court allows the amendment, the next step, according to Mullin, will be for the county’s attorneys to review and respond to each allegation in the complaint. “It will all be addressed in due time,” he added. “We have always contended there is a difference between a message and a public record. Not all messages are public records.”
The county’s “partnership” with Rayonier to “master plan” the huge Rayonier-owned property began in 2007. The ENCPA, a state-approved Sector Plan, was adopted in July 2011. A link to information on the ENCPA can be found at http:// bit.ly/2khsaae.
The text messages in question pertain to communications among county employees and county commissioners while the commissioners were in Tallahassee in February 2018. All of the county commissioners went to Tallahassee to oppose amendments to Florida House and Senate bills that would have restricted what a “Sector Plan” developer would be required to contribute toward “land acquisition or construction or expansion of public facilities ... unless the local government has enacted a local ordinance that requires developers of other developments not within a sector planning area to contribute a proportionate share of the funds, land or public facilities necessary to accommodate any impacts having a rational nexus to the proposed development.”
The amendments were also opposed by the Florida Association of Counties and the American Planning Association. Nassau County officials were against the proposed legislation because of its potential financial impact locally. The amended bills, supported by lobbyists from Associated Industries of Florida, were defeated in the appropriations process.
“They told us it was a largely a local issue without impact for the rest of the state and should be resolved at a local level. … You can’t treat a sector plan any differently than other developments,” Mullin said.
Tensions have remained high between the county and Rayonier ever since.
Aside from the text messages, accusations that county commissioners violated Sunshine laws also stem from the Tallahassee trip, where county representatives stayed at the same hotel. While the nuances of the Sunshine Law allow for communications between commissioners and between commissioners and staff within certain guidelines, Rayonier accuses commissioners of illegally collaborating on punitive actions toward Rayonier while in Tallahassee.
Addressing the allegations of violations of the Sunshine Law by commissioners while in Tallahassee, Mullin said that a decision to oppose the legislation had already been made in a public meeting by the board before going to Tallahassee.
“I don’t think anything inappropriate happened in Tallahassee,” said Mullin.
Alejandro Barbero, director of strategic development and communications for Rayonier, denies the complaint’s relationship to hard feelings over what transpired in Tallahassee.
“Just read the complaint,” Barbero said. “The story here is about them failing to comply with our request for public records in October. The county isn’t playing by the rules.”
The complaint also alleges the county has undertaken a “smear campaign” against Rayonier by hiring a public relations firm with taxpayer dollars. Mullin claims the PR contract was meant to temporarily handle a surge of media interest around the issue back in February, when staff and commissioners were in Tallahassee and unavailable for comment.
Barbero does not deny that Rayonier has access to public relations services to represent its own interests. Neither does Rayonier have to make their meetings or strategies about Wildlight public. When asked whether a corporation has an unfair advantage because they don’t have to play by the same rules
as a government agency, Barbero responded, “We all have different rules we have to abide by. ... Let the legal system decide.”
Rayonier’s public records request in October was related to another pending lawsuit accusing Mullin of a conflict of interest in all matters pertaining to Wildlight because he once represented Rayonier on issues related to the development while in private practice. Later, Mullin returned to his role as county attorney.
The Florida Bar sent Mullin a letter on March 15 advising him its Grievance Committee had dismissed an ethics complaint filed against by Rayonier Inc. attorney Mark R. Bridwell as having no probable cause, but Mullin was also advised that his “actions were very close to the edge of violating The Rules of Professional Conduct and justifiably raised the specter of impropriety." Both Mullin and an attorney representing Bridwell were then sent another letter dated April 17 advising them the matter was referred to the Bar’s Disciplinary Review Committee.
In May, the Florida Bar’s Disciplinary Review Committee completed a review of the ethics complaint against Mullin and determined that no further action would be taken.
Rayonier maintains Mullin’s current position represents a conflict of interest in matters pertaining to Wildlight.
According to Barbero, Rayonier will continue to pursue the conflict-of-interest issue in the courts. A hearing for their request for an injunction against Mullin is set for mid-July.
A third lawsuit was filed by Rayonier over the county’s creation of a Municipal Services Taxing Unit to cover the cost of public amenities at Wildlight after negotiations failed between the county and the East Nassau Stewardship District, a special taxing entity created by the 2017 legislature (HB 1075) to oversee the ENCPA, which holds Raydient’s Wildlight development. Since its creation, the ENSD, with a majority of members who work for Rayonier, has not met with the Board of County Commissioners to address differences over the funding of public recreational amenities. The Stewardship District put special conditions on any such meeting, including the need for a facilitator. The BOCC refused to accept the conditions.
“Our issue is not with Raydient, et al, (a subsidiary of Rayonier named in the suit) it’s with the Stewardship District,” said Mullin. “It’s always been ironic to me that the issue could have been resolved in something as simple as sitting down and having a meeting and working out our differences.”
A court-ordered mediation between the adversaries last Friday resulted in an impasse, Mullin reported. Neither he nor Barbero are at liberty to comment further on the ongoing litigation.
Barbero shared Rayonier’s perspective that Wildlight is “an engine of growth for the county.” He continued, “I don’t have the figures before me right now, but before Wildlight, that whole parcel of property was bringing in somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 in taxes to the county. Now we have started development, our taxes last year were $460,000. We estimate the county will be receiving a half million in taxes every year.”
The BOCC estimates the cost of development of a single baseball field runs close to a million dollars.