Why did it take a newspaper 100 miles away in Miami to tell Martin County citizens three of their commissioners have been breaking the law for the last four years?
I'll tell you why, and it gives me no pleasure to say this: It's because the newspaper of record in Martin County, The Stuart News -- where I worked for 28 years -- wasn't covering the bizarre story of collusion, deception and outright lies in Lake Point's lawsuit against Martin County.
That's wasn't. As in Was Not. First instinct: Protect the ones you love, I guess.
The point is, Commissioners Sarah Heard, Ed Fielding and now-former-commissioner Anne Scott, plus former county commissioner Maggy Hurchalla -- one or another of them at various times -- were in and out of court hearings since 2013 lying like a rug, denying, disappearing or destroying public records sought by the rock mine to argue its case.
When Stuart News readers and taxpayers went to bed Friday night, they had no idea court-appointed arbitrator Howard Googe had ordered Martin County to pay four years of Lake Point attorney fees in the case, amounting to $371,801.75. Miami Herald readers knew it, Stuart News readers did not. See the Herald story here.
I'm talking about two real stories on the public records lawsuit in four years. The only two directly related to the case I remember or could find on the Web were 1) when the first trial judge ruled the county was not violating public records laws in September 2015 -- and it was on page 2 or 3; and 2) when that ruling was overturned and a new trial was ordered in April 2016 -- that one was on page 13, where even advertisers beg not to go.
During the pre-primary phase of Election 2016, the email issue did come up in some Stuart News coverage, which the paper labeled "scurrilous attacks" on the county commissioners, as if they somehow were above wrongdoing.
I can assure you this: There is one journalist, and only one journalist, in Martin County who has followed the public records lawsuit story chapter and verse from Day One -- and I mean virtually every day in court, every legal step of the way: Barbara Clowdus.
Clowdus, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott last week to serve on the Early Learning Coalition of Indian River, Martin and Okeechobee Counties, is the editor and publisher of Martin County Currents. Barbara has a print version of the paper, but it's available online on the Martin County Currents website. And stay tuned. I'm going to write her hard-slogging inspirational story in Sunshine State News very soon. Talk about a good person harassed by Martin County's dark forces ...
During the weekend I had eight phone calls to my home from readers of The Stuart News, asking me what this lawsuit is all about and "why haven't we seen it in the Stuart paper?" Some had read my story, some the Herald's, one Clowdus' story. These were not happy people. Two of them specifically brought up former state Senate President and former St. Lucie Property Appraiser Ken Pruitt.
Starting April 7, 2013, for the next 546 days -- just as the public records lawsuit was heating up -- editors launched a year-long attempt to humiliate and discredit the popular state lawmaker by running the daily "Pruitt Meter" -- a mug shot of Pruitt at the top of the Opinion Page, with a number that counted the days he refused to discuss whether he would keep his "lucrative lobbying business" or give it up and be a full-time county property appraiser. Pruitt was doing nothing illegal. His decision to take on a sugar client was at the heart of the campaign.
So, these Stuart callers wanted to know how the newspaper could spend so much time on Pruitt, yet couldn't smell out public officials running amok in their own backyard? And I admit it, I wanted to know, too.
(Oh, and as an aside, under Pruitt's leadership, the St. Lucie Property Appraiser's Office was awarded the 2014 International Association of Assessing Officers' "Distinguished Assessment Jurisdiction Award," a recognition given to only one office out of 7,000 in the world. It wasn't long after that that the newspaper took the Pruitt Meter down.)
It was a failure. Local folks either found harassing Pruitt unsavory or plain didn't care as long as it was legal.
About mid-morning Monday, The Stuart News finally produced a whitewashed story on the public records lawsuit outcome. Even in its later update, it included few of arbitrator Googe's stinging comments.
"Still protecting their favorite commissioners," sniffed T.C. Brown, a retired banker who lives in Jensen Beach.
News Director and Editor Adam Neal did not return my phone call.
Even Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, told me she was "always surprised" she never got a call from the Stuart paper asking about this public records case.
"The arbitrator really slapped these commissioners silly," Petersen said. "What these elected officials did was clearly intentional. And I would definitely say this is criminal and should be investigated. But only a state attorney can file criminal charges. It would help greatly if someone would go to (State Attorney) Bruce Colton and file a complaint. But even then, it's up to him whether he pursues it."
Petersen said it might add weight to his decision that “this is the second time Martin County commissioners have intentionally attempted to thwart the public’s ability to oversee the actions of the commission and hold it accountable.”
I wonder if there's any appetite among Stuart editors to run a "Heard Meter" and a "Fielding Meter" -- they could run them like bookends at the top of the Opinion page -- counting the days until Sarah Heard steps down ... counting the days until Ed Fielding, etc. -- no, probably not.
If you want a copy of Googe's order, email me and I'll send it. The document is too large to attach here.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith
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