Power sale being negotiated behind closed doors

COMMENTARY

“Florida’s open government laws are intended to insure that the public’s business is conducted in the public, not in secret.  Moss appears to be flaunting, if not violating those laws. (In her recent election to the Council, Moss benefited from a $50,000 contribution FPL made to a political action committee supporting her.)”

Editor’s note:  Following receipt today of InsideVero’s latest public records request, City Manager Jim O’Connor replied, “My office has no documents related to the proposed sale, but I have been involved ini discussions, but there were no documents passed between parties in the discussion where I participated.” When asked how staff could be conducting an ongoing financial review of FPL’s proposed terms without putting any information in writing, O’Connor replied, “I know better than to take notes in fact I usually will not carry a pen.” O’Conner’s explanations make unmistakably clear he and just one member of the City Council, Laura Moss, are negotiating the sale of a public asset and are doing so behind closed doors. Further, his comments raise questions about the veracity of Moss’s claim that members of City Staff have been conducting “an ongoing financial review” of the deal.

MARK SCHUMANN

When it comes to Mayor Laura Moss’s negotiations with FPL, no one knows what is said behind closed doors.

During last Tuesday’s Vero Beach City Council meeting, Mayor Laura Moss acknowledged that the City’s outside attorneys have in their possession “complete information” on a pending letter of intent from Florida Power & Light. That letter is to be presented to the Council at a special call meeting scheduled for the morning of May 16.

At least based on public statements they have made to date, Council members Harry Howle, Lange Sykes and Moss intend to accept FPL’s letter of intent at the May 16 meeting. Unlike Howle, Moss and Sykes, Councilmen Richard Winger and Tony Young have said they will be reluctant to accept even an outline of FPL’s offer until the terms can be reviewed by the Finance and Utilities Commissions.

According to Moss, member of City Staff have access to at least the outline of FPL’s pending offer. The information, Moss said, has been the subject of “an ongoing financial review by Staff.” Despite Moss’s public admission that the specifics of FPL’s pending offer are in the hands of the City’s outside counsel, as well as Staff, no one at the City has yet been willing or able to provide the information in response to public records requests.

It appears Moss is working with FPL officials, the City’s outside attorneys, and possibly with members of Staff, to negotiate in secret terms for the sale of the City’s most valuable asset.  Is the City making the best deal possible for the people of Vero Beach, or is Moss simply caving to FPL’s terms?  Given that Moss is conducting the negotiations behind closed doors and without the involvement of other members of the Council, we may never know. Florida’s open government laws are intended to insure that the public’s business is conducted in the public, not in secret.  Moss appears to be flaunting, if not violating those laws. (In her recent election to the Council, Moss benefited from a $50,000 contribution FPL made to a political action committee supporting her.)

Today, I sent the following public records request to the City.  It might be Moss’s desire to keep the terms of FPL’s offer secret until she decides to make the information public, but Florida law simply does not allow for such closed-door negotiations regarding public assets.

Tammy, Wayne, Jim,

During the May 2, 2017 meeting of the Vero Beach City Council, Councilwoman Laura Moss announced that the City’s attorneys asked for a week’s delay to conduct further due diligence on Florida Power & Light’s proposed letter of intent to acquire Vero Electric.  

When asked what information the attorneys have with which to conduct due diligence on FPL’s pending letter of intent, Moss said, “The attorneys have the complete information, and it is still being negotiated.” 

Later, when asked by Councilman Tony Young who has had an opportunity to review the finances of FPL’s pending letter of intent, Moss said, “I cannot discuss the finances. Perhaps it will help you to know City Staff has been involved in this. There has been an ongoing financial review by Staff.”

A member of the public, Brian Heady, then asked, “Which City Staff has been involved?”  

Moss replied, “That is as far as I am going to go on it at this point in time.”

Heady asked, “What are they doing due diligence on?”

Moss replied, “It’s privileged information at this point.”

As we all know, certain exceptions to the Sunshine Law apply when a governing body is involved in litigation.  Further, certain trade secrets are protected.  As least at this point, the City’s effort to sell Vero Electric does not involve litigation.  Thus, public records requests related to the proposed sale cannot be legally denied on that basis. Only documents which contain information FPL legally claims to be trade secrets can at this point be withheld from the public. This is not a competitive biding process, thus the terms FPL is considering proposing, if that information is in the hands of City staff, elected officials, or the City’s agents, cannot reasonably be claimed to be trade secrets. 

During last Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Moss said any public discussion at this point of the terms of the offer FPL is preparing to propose, and which is supposedly now being reviewed by the City’s attorneys and Staff, would “jeopardize” the negotiations. To use her exact words, such discussions would be “tantamount to yelling fire in a crowded theatre.”  Mayor Moss clearly believes, rightly or wrongly, that open, public discussion at this point could be detrimental to the proposed sale of a public asset. However, Florida’s open government laws do not allow for the withholding of public records simply because the revelation of information contained therein might complicate or frustrate the work of government. By equating the proposed sale of a public asset to the life-and-death matter of causing a deadly stampede in a crowded theatre, Mayor Moss has stretched her argument beyond the bounds of reason.

Please accept this as a public records request for any documents created or received by City Staff, elected officials, or agents acting on behalf of the City regarding the renewed effort to negotiate a sale of Vero Electric to FPL, including FPL’s pending letter of intent.

Sincerely,

Mark Schumann

3 comments

  1. I can see lawsuits in our City’s future……..from several sources. This is appalling news. How can residents be kept in the dark over something so, well, HUGE? Even those outside the city who may be delighted to lose COVB electric should know the facts. It does create change – maybe major change – for us.

  2. What Vero needs is an open bidding process so that some competition is created between FPL and other electric providers . This is a once in a lifetime contract and must be done with the best interests of Vero. paramount. Frankly, based on recent events, I doubt Mayor Moss has put Vero in the best position for the best deal possible for Vero.

  3. John, the Tampa Bay Times editorial board last week described the Florida Legislatures as “a wholly owned subsidiary” of Florida Power and Light. Having successfully bought seats on the Vero Beach City Council for Harry Howle, Laura Moss and Lange Sykes, FPL now also calls the shots in Vero Beach. In truth, there is no real negotiating going on here, and what discussions are taking place are happening in secret. Moss claims the people of Vero Beach support the sale, so much so that they will accept whatever terms are offered by FPL.

    Some who know the deal will be bad for the City, and who realize the likely consequences are ones the public would never support, now want the sale concluded on any terms. They just want to move on, because they mistakenly believe the sale of Vero Electric will bring an end to discord in local politics. This view is terribly naive. The power sale will be followed by an inevitable budget crisis, which will then be used my Howle, Moss and Sykes as a pretext for selling the water and sewer system to the County, for consolidating Vero Beach police department with the Sheriffs Office, for discontinuing recreation programs, cutting lifeguard hours, and on and on. Anyone who believe all the limited-government extremists want is the sale of Vero Electric, has their head in the sand.

    There is no discussion of the fact that this deal was sold on the claim that the rate differential between Vero Electric and FPL is some 25%. That differential is now below 10%. More importantly, there has been no serious discussion of how municipal services will be funded after the sale. Howle, Moss and Sykes simply have not thought this through. They have no plan for cutting expenses, or raising revenues post sale. They have no strategy beyond their wishful thinking, and that is no strategy.

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