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Smoke and mirrors where there should be sunshine

Creative Loafing Best Blogger and/or Columnist 2007, 2008, 2009 & 2010

In less than 60 days, the City of Sarasota will have to cough up a not-so-cool near-$5 million to pay for what turned out to an unrequited school girl’s crush it had on the Boston Red Sox.

Last August, operating on nothing more substantial than a hot and heavy “I wanna be your girlfriend” flutter of talks and emails and gossip and copious amounts of newsprint, Sarasota City and County Commissioners joined forces to lay the groundwork for acquiring sufficient land to accommodate a new stadium for the Sox, despite the fact that taxpayers had voted resoundingly against spending public monies for a new stadium.

Taxpayer voting be damned, our elected officials went ahead at puppy-love speed in spending money to attract the Red Sox to our fair city.

One of the main sticking points, though, was that the proposed site considered most viable for a stadium — the newly created Payne Park — was not sufficient in size to meet the ballpark and training needs of the Sox. Then somebody had the idea to expand the site available by acquiring additional parcels of land adjacent to the park.
To pull all this off, late last summer, our local government engaged in a little game of smoke and mirrors. Let’s recap.

Smoke & Mirrors, Round 1:
The city needed and wanted the additional parcels which were not on the market at the time. But, according to County Land Acquisition Manager John Herrli during an Aug. 26, 2008 County Commissioners meeting, the county is the one that had the contacts necessary to negotiate with the parcel owners. So, a plan was developed for the county to obtain the parcels for the city and then the city would reimburse the county at a later date.

The county did not want to approach the owners of the desired properties directly because they were afraid they’d get taken to the cleaners if the owners knew parcels were being bought to facilitate a big-money Red Sox stadium deal.
Commissioner Joe Barbetta explained the county’s back-door approach during the August meeting: “It’s tough to try to buy a property when you’re a county and not let the sellers, you know, know what the purposes are for because otherwise you feel that your value is going to be inflated when you try to buy it.” In other words, the county needed a front man.

Smoke & Mirrors, Round 2:
In an attempt to pull a bit of wool over the parcel owners’ eyes, the county accepted the aid of two of its contacts — two private citizens willing to help the county acquire what it wanted without tipping its hand to the prospective sellers. The plan was for these private citizens — referred to many times by county officials but never named — to enter into contracts with the parcel sellers and then assign those contracts to the county.

Which is exactly what happened. The private citizens successfully negotiated with the parcel owners and at the Aug. 26 meeting, the county commissioners did indeed vote to accept the assignment of those contracts. County Administrator Jim Ley had high praise for the two intermediaries who had worked on behalf of facilitating what was hoped to be a deal with the Red Sox: “We had the assistance of two private-sector individuals that did this without compensation or any other consideration only in purely public interest and I’m not necessarily naming them, [but] they should be thanked.”

So who were the front men for the county?

Private Citizen #1: The front man buyer of the additional parcels was a Florida Partnership named D & R Properties. Signing on behalf of D & R was John F. Dowd, listed as general manager of the partnership. The address for D & R Properties is the same as that of John F. Dowd, CPA, of the firm Dowd, Whittaker & Association of Venice, Florida. Dowd and D&R put down $150,000 earnest money that was later refunded by the county.

Private Citizen #2: The “transaction broker” listed on all the contracts for the parcels — operating as a go-between for Dowd, the County, and the in-the-dark sellers — was John F. Ask, of Florida Home Team, LLC, a real estate company doing business at 2100 Constitution Blvd. in Sarasota. According to the Florida Home Team website (, it appears that Ley’s wife, Tamara, works with Ask at Florida Home Team.

Smoke & Mirrors, Round 3:
The County, which normally requires two appraisals for any property purchase over $500,000, only had one appraisal performed for this high-profile, nearly $5 million purchase. According to Herrli, there just wasn’t enough time – this, despite the fact that as far as the public is aware, no Red Sox deal was ever so imminent that it would have precluded the adherence to standard County operating procedures.
On the day the commissioners voted to approve the purchase/assignment of the additional parcels, they weren’t even provided an appraisal for what they were buying. All the commissioners had was Herrli’s word (later confirmed in writing) that the property had been appraised at $4,470,000 and that the acquisition price of $4,785,080 seemed “fair and appropriate” according to the appraiser. The missing written appraisal report was a subject of considerable conversation during the Aug. 26 meeting.

In that same meeting, Commissioner Nora Patterson described the contracts that the county was acquiring from Dowd/D & R as “completely unreadable.” It was generally acknowledged in the meeting that the contracts were indeed illegible in several sections due to repeated fax transmission, but the commissioners nevertheless voted unanimously to accept the assigned contracts and proceed with the purchase.
Despite the fact that she voted to accept the unreadable contracts, Patterson still admonished the rest of her fellow commissioners after the vote, saying: “You just voted on a package on a property with an appraisal you didn’t see to support a contract that you’re taking over that you can’t read.”

Sloppy documentation and smoke and mirrors aside, the city now has to come up with somewhere around $4.8 million to pay off its debt to the county by June 30.
In an interview last week, City Manager Robert Bartolotta stated that the city hopes to make a land swap deal with the county and is reviewing several possible scenarios. If they can’t come to an agreement with the county, and if the city has to pay in cash, Bartolotta says they’ll simply borrow the money — serviced by sales tax surtax revenue — at a rate of about 4 percent over 15 years, ballooning the cost of the parcels acquisition to somewhere between $6 and $7 million over the life of the loan.

In the end, the parcel sellers probably got a very decent deal, despite the use of front men. The city now has extra land to expand Payne Park, and the county is going to get its money back. No harm, no foul, right?

Not in my book. Look, if I sent a private citizen in to ferret out information from a government official just because that official might disclose more information to Joe Blow Citizen than to a reporter, would that make it right? Not on any day and I’d burn any reputation for integrity that I might have.

Bottom line: If you’re doing the right thing, there’s never a reason to rush a deal without adequate documentation; if you’re doing the right thing, there’s never a need to have a front man, and if you’re doing the right thing, there’s never a need for smoke and mirrors.

Posted on May 5th, 2009Comments RSS Feed

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