RESTORE Committee Rolls On

By Jessica Forbes

RESTORE Advisory Committee Rolls On: Experts and Televised Sessions to Come

Two Lines in Tallahassee

The politics of determining whom will be responsible for distributing the expected hundreds of millions of RESTORE Act dollars reared their heads on Monday across the Panhandle, and was the first topic of discussion for the third meeting of the Escambia County RESTORE Act Committee.

Amendment 317422 to Florida Senate Bill 1024 was introduced last Friday, April 19.

Two lines within that amendment would redirect funds intended for the eight counties affected by the 2010 BP Oil Spill to a Recovery Fund administered by a panel of five state-appointed representatives from the private sector.

The amendment establishes the panel, a non-profit entity called Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc., which will be created within but not subject to the control of the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity.

“I think we’re all kind of curious as to what this means,” County Commissioner Grover Robinson stated.

“The overt position of the language is that it is intended strictly for the Florida claim, which we have no problem with, they have every right constitutionally to determine how the Florida claim is handled.” However Robinson and others felt “there is a covert position in some of the references that could be directed toward the entire RESTORE Act.”

Robinson stated he planned to travel to Tallahassee on Tuesday to testify before a Senate panel, assuring the RESTORE committee, “I value everything that you’re doing and we are going to defend the process, which we believe is the right process.”

Robinson explained the issue could be resolved if two lines of text were removed from the amendment. “Those two lines refer to the RESTORE Act. That simple two line strike will remove any questions, any concerns.”

Robinson hoped in his visit to Tallahasse “to try to take care of whatever we can do to get it removed from the Senate Bill language so there’s no question as to what happens with RESTORE.”

“We really appreciate what you’re doing, to take the time to really create a vision for where we want to be in the future,” Robinson later emphasized.

Katie Betta, spokesperson for State Senate President Don Gaetz, told the IN earlier on Monday the amendment, “doesn’t in any way touch the pot of money that goes directly to the counties,” saying Gaetz was behind the amendment, “It’s his idea, the other senators worked with him on the language.”

When asked if Gaetz’s office had received many calls regarding the amendment, Betta stated, “We have—a lot today.” Escambia County officials were among many who called their office on Monday, Betta said.

At 6:07pm on Monday, shortly after the Escambia RESTORE meeting ended, in Tallahassee a late-filed amendment to the amendment called for the substitution of the two lines pertaining to RESTORE Act funds, part of which reads “Notwithstanding any other provision under this act, this act shall not affect any funds distributed to any county under 33 U.S.C. 1321(t) .”

The amendment is on the Senate Appropriations Committee agenda for 9:00am EST today.

Quest for Criteria

At their last meeting, the committee requested they be able to suggest criteria to the Board of County Commissioners for awarding funds to projects.

Keith Wilkins, Director of the county’s Community and Environment Department reported on the BCC’s last meeting, “After a healthy discussion, the consensus was they would like to hear recommendations from this committee on criteria for what’s important to the community.”

Committee members had a number of suggestions as how to shape to process for determining criteria.

Christian Wagley, the committee’s environmental representative suggested using the initial months of the process as a “fact-finding phase” in which experts in economic development, environmental, and social issues could present to the committee.

Transportation representative Alan McMillan called to devote a meeting to hearing from the public, while financial representative Gregg Beck suggested limiting the number of criteria to perhaps 6 to 10, to avoid the number of criteria from becoming “cumbersome.”

Al Coby, who sits in the citizen-at-large seat supported the public contributing ideas for criteria first, and project suggestions later.

Committee Chair Benita Terry summarized the suggestions outlining a plan for the committee to proceed. First, they will list experts they would currently like to hear from, give other expert groups the opportunity to self-identify and allow those groups to come forward, then “take the criteria and share with the public and let them help us further refine it.”

In addition to experts in economic development and environmental issues, Wagley suggested including Public Health specialists. Terry supported hearing from those experts in the economic development phase, the first period of the fact-finding period.

Terry also suggested extending invitations to chambers of commerce in addition to Escambia and Pensacola, as well as the Haas Center, which county staff agreed would be beneficial.

Speaking (or not) to the Press

Kathleen Castro, the county’s Public Information Officer, deferred her time to address dissemination of information to the public to interim County Administrator George Touart, who made it clear the county was willing to serve as the mouthpiece of the Advisory Committee.

“Nobody’s trying to tell anybody not to say anything,” Touart reassured the group, “As far as your individual ideas, speak all you want.”

Touart offered the county staff up to disseminate the information or to guide committee members through the public relations process if they so desired.

“We work for you, we want to get out your message. Ya’ll are going to be put in front of the news media, keep in mind, you speak for nine people when you speak,” the administrator stated.

Touart further explained, “When it comes to a project, if somebody says ‘Are we going to get this project done?’ you can’t speak to that. [If someone asks] ‘Are you in favor of it?’ you can speak to it. It’s a balancing act you have to do, because you are going to be confronted by the news media…after we know the dollars, they’re going to come out of the woodwork. “

Terry reiterated the committee members’ desire not to be gagged, but asked, “if you do speak to the press, to please call Ms. Castro and let her know either before or after so that she is mindful of that…I think it’s good if she’s always in the loop.”

Trasparency through Television

When discussing disseminating information and speaking to the press, Beck restated, “I’d like these meetings to be as absolutely transparent as possible, if it means moving downtown to the County Commission chambers so they can be broadcast…that’s the way it needs to be.”

After some discussion, the majority of committee members were in favor of moving their meetings to the Board of County Commissioners chambers where they could be televised.

The county supported the idea with Touart saying, “We’ll do anything to get this message to the public because this is public money, [is] going to be public projects and they need to be involved and understand the projects. Everybody is not going to get what they want, guys.”

The committee’s May meetings will be held on May 6 and May 20 downtown at BCC chambers.