The town of Longboat Key has no access to $16 million in funds that Key voters approved for a beach project last week, due to a Town Clerk’s Office advertising error.
Town Clerk Trish Granger told the Longboat Observer Monday that her office only advertised the beach bond referendum in daily newspaper publications in the fourth week prior to the election, which created the problem. State law mandates that a bond referendum must be advertised in the third and fifth weeks prior to the election. The referendum should have been published during the weeks of Feb. 7 and Feb. 21. Instead, it was only published during the week of Feb. 14.
For the town, the error means that the $16 million beach bond can’t be issued until the town either holds another election or gets the vote validated by a county judge.
Granger discovered the error when the town was in the midst of its early voting week at Town Hall.
“When I asked for the proofs of publication to be sent to the town’s beach bond counsel, that’s when I discovered it,” Granger said. “The town clerk’s office is responsible for advertising. It’s ultimately the town clerk’s responsibility, and I take responsibility for the error.”
Granger said she immediately notified town attorney David Persson, who recommended the town proceed with its election and work to validate the election results through other avenues after the polls closed.
“Technically, the beach project was approved, but now the vote must be validated,” Granger said.
Because of the advertising error, a bond counsel attorney cannot issue a clean bond opinion that bondholders can rely on before issuing the $16 million bond to the town.
That’s where Sarasota County Clerk of Circuit Court, Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court, Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, and the Legislature come in.
Town Manager Bruce St. Denis sent a letter to Bennett March 21 that asked for his assistance in validating the beach-project vote.
“To assist the town in curing this technical defect, the town will seek court validation of its bonds,” St. Denis wrote. “The town is asking for a special act of the Legislature (to help validate the vote).”
St. Denis has asked Bennett, the Senate president pro tempore, whether he can assist the town in getting the Legislature to issue a validation opinion before the Legislative session ends in May.
St. Denis attached a list of eight previous cases for which the Legislature has helped make a validation opinion regarding election results that had errors because of notice publications.
The goal is to receive a validation opinion from the Legislature that can be entered into the record for either a Manatee County or Sarasota County judge, who will decide whether the beach project vote is validated.
St. Denis said it will take approximately three-to-six months to go through the court process and cost the town approximately $10,000 in legal fees.
St. Denis is confident the beach project will be validated and said it shouldn’t delay a beach project timeline that includes the town placing sand on its north-end beaches and other erosion hot-spots in November 2012.
Also, natural-gas pipeline company Port Dolphin LLC has extended the town’s deadline to June 2013 to remove white sand from a pipeline corridor at the bottom of the Gulf for its beaches.
“The court must make a decision as to whether this is valid and was the will of the people and met the spirit of the law,” St. Denis said. “We can submit evidence and meeting minutes that reflect that our residents were informed of the beach project before they voted on this referendum.”
Public Works Director Juan Florensa said regardless of the outcome, the town is working diligently to obtain permits for the beach project.
As far as the error is concerned, Granger said it will never happen again.
“A procedure will be put in place,” Granger said. “I will be copied on every ad and proof that goes into the paper in the future. It won’t ever happen again as long as I am the town clerk.”
Town Manager Bruce St. Denis plans to schedule a special beach meeting next month to talk about the town’s Comprehensive Beach Management Plan.
St. Denis said that an update to the town’s 2008 beach plan needs to be made because that plan includes renourishing every six to eight years.
If the commission made a policy change to the beach plan to only renourish where needed, that would be a dramatic shift from past beach policies.
“There are more beach decisions that have to be made moving forward,” St. Denis said. “The updated plan will incorporate structures on the north end, placement of sand and figuring out the next step and potentially the next project.”
Contact Kurt Schultheis at firstname.lastname@example.org