Caryville Town Council gathered for an emergency meeting Tuesday that was called to impose an immediate cease to excavation of land controlled by the town.
A premature decision by council chairman Henry Chambers created a problem with multiple layers when he hired a timber company on the town’s behalf without the council’s backing in a manner that did not follow proper legal protocol.
“The Sunshine Law has been broken,” said council member Nora Curry. Florida’s Sunshine Law exists to ensure open government and that all dealings stay transparent among boards, commissions and other governing bodies in state and local agencies.
A chain of events that left the council at odds began to align last month, when Chambers requested a quote from Sapp’s Land & Excavation on what the company would pay the town for merchantable wood.
On Feb. 5, Chambers met with company Vice President Jeremy Sapp to convey the town’s need to have tree debris removed after another logging company partially cleared parcels of land. Sapp proposed a figure, and Chambers said he would run the information by the council in the next meeting, which was set for Feb 10.
In that meeting less, the topic of hiring a company to chip and haul away the debris came up for discussion. Chambers shared he’d looked into some options and had a company in mind that would pay the town $50 per ton.
This quote intrigued council members, but no motions were made to put the project up for bid or to hire a specific company.
Despite not having an official vote from the Town Council, on Feb. 25, Chambers signed a general timber sales agreement giving timber rights to Sapp’s Land & Excavating, Inc. on 316 acres of specified tracts of land. The company moved in heavy equipment the following day and had cleared away about 25 acres when council member Timothy Hanes was alarmed to learn the work was already in progress.
“Hundred-year-old oaks are being cut out there,” Hanes said. “Our grandkids are not going to see them.”
Hanes’s biggest concern was some of the town’s more historical and environmentally beneficial trees were being cut when the council’s prior discussion clearly specified that no more trees would come down.
His second point of contention was with decimal placement in the pay rate on the contract. Instead of $50 a ton as Chambers mentioned in last month’s meeting, the chairman signed an agreement for the timber company to compensate the town at rate of 50 cents per ton.
“I made a mistake,” Chambers said.
Hanes and Curry agreed with this statement and had other questions for the chairman.
“Where did you get the authority to go into this contract with these people on your own?” Curry asked.
Chambers asked Curry to refer to the previous meeting’s minutes in which discussion about the council’s desire to have the work completed as discussed. Town clerk Jewette Tadlock had not completed the minutes, leaving Curry to point out another error in the city’s operation.
“We discussed it and were going to get bids on it. This contract we entered into here hasn’t been brought before the board. What we discussed was for somebody to come in and clean up what was on the ground. No standing timber would be cut,” Hanes said.
Council members went back and forth for several minutes about what they’d previously agreed on for the scope of work to be completed.
“Well anyway, what have they done wrong cutting the wood?” Chambers said.
Hanes said newly planted pines and long-standing trees had been cut and he wanted to see the work to stop immediately before more hardwood was lost.
Chambers maintained what had been cut down was scrap. Hanes disagreed, pointing out that he’d seen the trees go down that were too wide for the chipper.
Hanes made a motion to have Sapp stop the cutting, and it was seconded by Curry. Chambers and council member Ransom Works voted for the work to continue. Since one in the five member council, James Taylor, was missing at Tuesday’s meeting, the vote was split.
After the stalemate vote and a bit of silence, Hanes asked Works how he felt.
“I’m really not in this right here. I expect to do the right thing, but seeing so much controversy going on in Caryville now, I can understand the town trying to get money,” Works said. “And I see what Mr. Chambers was trying to do to keep the revenue coming in, but I understand where the rest of the town is coming from.”
Works pointed out land bought by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the town flooded in 1994 was returned to the town for its use with certain stipulations, one of them being the land would be kept clear.
Sapp interjected to clear up questions about the work in progress.
“What we’re doing will take it from a site that’s unusable to a site that can be sprayed and planted and turned back into something that’s going to generate revenue for the city in 10 to 12 years,” he said.
Sapp said the company used best management practices outlined by the Northwest Florida Water Management District to prevent stripping of topsoil that could end up in Choctawhatchee River.
Curry was still concerned with who was going to clean up debris after Sapp’s company was finished, since he specified any remaining treatment the property needed in the form of herbicides or removing barriers to replanting was not his company’s responsibility.
After over an hour of discussion among the council and contractor, a motion was passed to have Sapp continue work. The contract was amended to include special provisions in which oak trees larger than twenty inches in diameter at chest height shall remain and 30 acres of planted pines specified shall remain uncut.
Hanes made a final suggestion to the council that they change the policy on how many council member signatures would be required to employ a contract on the town’s behalf in the future.
Sapp tried to shed light on how much revenue the project would generate for the town. He said the current work load is yielding $14 per truck load and the town stood to profit about $1,400 a week for a month of projected work, depending on weather and other issues.
Sapp said the only forest product he knows of going for $50 is pine telephone poles.
Chambers was relatively quiet throughout the meeting as his constituents expressed dissent over his impulsive decision to hire the company without a bidding process or a public council vote and his blatant disregard for Sunshine Law’s requirement for such actions to occur in a transparent manner.
The amendment was made to the existing contract and signed off by Sapp, Curry and Hanes.
By the end of Tuesday, Sapp shook hands with Hanes as he handed over a roll of fluorescent tape for the town to mark any trees they’d like preserved as land clearing goes on.
“We need to be looking at the future, not the here and now payday,” Hanes said. “I understand the town needs money, but we don’t need it that bad.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: In addition to apparently violating the Florida Sunshine Laws by moving forward with the contract, the Town of Caryville, which is currently without a town attorney, appears to also be in violation of the law by failing to give the public or The Washington County News proper notice of the called meeting. The Florida Sunshine Law (section 286.011 of Florida Statues) mandates that all government meetings at which official business or acts of Council are to take place are subject to Florida Sunshine Law requirements, including that “reasonable advance notice” be given, not less than 24 hours. The News was notified by a chance call from Councilman David Hanes, just an hour prior to the called meeting. Look for an editorial on this issue by News Editor Carol Kent Wyatt in the March 11 edition of the Washington County News. The town’s actions could be subject to a court challenge. If proven to be in violation, those actions could be overturned, resulting in considerable cost in time and legal expenses to taxpayers.
Original article here.