It’s Not About Fairness

Senate President Don Gaetz took pains in an editorial last week (‘Revolving Door’ editorial fails fairness test, Northwest Florida Daily News, 22 Sep13) to defend his Chief of Staff, Chris Clark, who earned $400,000 working as a political consultant during his time off from working for the Senate President.

He made it clear he considered such a relationship neither illegal nor unethical, and welcomes future criticism.  “It’s a practice that Democrats and Republicans have used without any serious problem that I’m aware of,’’ said Gaetz.

Indeed, no one can object to a person using their wits to earn a living, especially when it is neither unethical nor illegal.  Of course, in this case we are talking about someone who is supposed to deal with people as a chief of staff of the Senate President that at other times of the year he may deal with as clients.  That’s a tough trick to pull off and not be doing special favors for someone.  In addition, it begs the question, but for his connections to the Senate President and as Chief of Staff would Mr. Clark make the hefty sums he does consulting?  I speculate that he would not.

Senator Gaetz is ignoring an obvious problem between government, access to power, and money. In the public eye behavior like this leads to a range of questions about government service as a means to private wealth, impartiality in government, and whether it is who you know not what you know that counts in this world.  Should Mr. Clark benefit financially both being an active public servant and at the same time privately consulting using the knowledge and contacts he makes as a public servant?  Most people, instinctively, would say no.

There is little doubt Senator Gaetz thinks he should.  The relationship between Gaetz and Clark is a close one.  According to the Tampa Bay Times, 31 August 13, he was Don Gaetz’s campaign manager in the 2005 Florida Senate race (paid a salary of $128,000 too), was given large chunks of the year off from 2009 to 2012 to consult for other Republican campaigns in the State, and immediately thereafter had his state salary increased from $76,068 to $150,000, “making him the highest paid staff member of the Florida Legislature.”  The Senator said the increase was justified because Clark “took a significant pay cut when he came to work for me six years ago.”  The favors go further.  After Mr. Clark returned to the Senate from his latest political consulting trail in 2012, Don Gaetz gave him $10,000 as a “win bonus.” He might argue good people are hard to find, and this is the way to get them keep them.

Clearly, Mr. Clark is using his position as a means to private wealth.  For him, working for the Senator is both a public service and a private business that generates as much private revenue as the demand in the market will allow.  Speculating again, I think that can be a lot of money.

Impartiality is also out the window.  Since Mr. Clark seems primarily involved with getting other Republicans elected to office, can anyone that opposes his political clients be sure that they are getting fair treatment when they meet him doing his job in the Senate?  Then again, Senator Gaetz might not have hired him to be impartial, but simply get the administrative job done the way the Senator likes.

Lastly, we see the old adage confirmed, once again, that it is who you know that counts.

Overall, this controversy has said more about Senator Gaetz than it does about Mr. Clark.  Clark works for Gaetz, and the Senator can pay him whatever he wants to pay him. Clark is also a public servant with current and exceptional access to legislative decision makers that he can pass off to clients. He is taking advantage of it with the Senator’s blessing.

Just because the law allows you to do something does not mean you should do it.

One thing is for sure. This isn’t about fairness.

Pete Blome is Chair of the Northwest Florida Libertarian Party and an At-Large Rep for the Libertarian Party of Florida.



The Biggest Unseen Problem In The County

For years now, the Libertarians in Okaloosa County have been alone pointing out the fiscal mess that is the Mid Bay Bridge Authority.

It is a monstrous case of our County Commissioners shirking their supervisory duty according to the law, of a bridge authority thinking trees will grow forever to the sky, and then the state getting involved and spreading the pain over every taxpayer in Florida. Everyone in the Government was thinking of themselves, but no one was thinking about those that use the bridge. The bridge user will now have to pay, and pay, and pay.

But most people don’t see it. Non-bridge users don’t care. Neither does the Tea Party which is rapidly becoming a booster club to give venues for Republicans to focus on anything but what is important.

And it isn’t like the Bridge is a minor program. With the exception of federal projects at Eglin AFB, the Mid Bay Bridge is by far the single most expensive program going in the County. When the Bypass construction is finished, the Authority will have $350 million dollars in debt on its books. That’s a whopping debt for a county of 180,000 people.

Years ago our County Commission decided to exclude the MBBA from its financial statements because of accounting differences between the bridge and the County. Of course, this change did have the effect of making it look like the County had no role in the Bridge budget.

But the law, 2000-411, gave supervision of the operational budget to the Board of County Commissioners. That’s why they have to vote on a bridge budget every year. Mr. Jim Vest, Executive Director for the Bridge, has claimed that this is a mere $700,000 out of a $13 million dollar budget. He thinks nobody except the Bridge Authority, unsupervised by either the County or the Governor, should oversee the remainder. THe BCC goes along with it.

In any case, the BCC has routinely rubberstamped Bridge Authority Budgets with no discussion at all.

With such power, it is no surprise the Bridge Authority thought it could do whatever it wanted.

The Bridge was built cheaply and quickly in 1994. Instead of paying off debt, and passing the savings on to the public, the MBBA decided to continuously expand.

On average, they added $10 million in debt every year since construction started.

The new Bridge Bypass can only be fiscally sustainable if vehicle traffic kept growing every year. But traffic has gone down for five years in a row. I think it will decrease more in the future. The Authority will now have to use all of its current income just to pay interest on its debt. That means more toll hikes are coming in the future.

Don’t believe me? Fitch’s Bond Service rates MBBA bonds at an abysmal BBB, one step above junk for all the reasons I just spelled out.

According to Rep. Brad Drake of Defuniak Springs, we have MBBA Executive Directors, who are paid $200,000 a year for this poor performance.

Now the State of Florida is proposing to eliminate any toll discounts for Sunpass users as it prepares to take over operation of the bridge.

And we have the people of Okaloosa who will have to pay $9, roundtrip, forever, to get from Crestview to Destin.

Senator Gaetz says a State takeover will save the State of Florida $24 million dollars, but those are phony savings. The toll payer will see nothing but higher tolls.

A state takeover will only widen the pool of payers for the debt to all the people in Florida, who had nothing to do with this mess.

In the meantime, the Mid Bay Bridge becomes a never ending cash cow for the bottomless pit of Florida State finance.

There is probably no chance anymore that this money problem can be fixed. But, in my opinion, heads should roll over this matter.

The Board of Directors of the MBBA should be fired by the Governor.

The Executive Directors should be fired by the Board of Directors.

And the County Commissioners should be fired by the people of Okaloosa for making 18,000 people a day pay through the nose for government incompetence.