TALLAHASSEE (AP) — Board members of a toll-bridge authority serving a tiny but affluent barrier island community in southwest Florida balked at a 2009 state law requiring that they file full financial disclosure.
They successfully lobbied to get it changed, but the case isn’t over.
The board now is engaged in a drawn-out legal dispute with the state Ethics Commission over its ruling they still must comply with the requirement, which includes listing dollar amounts for assets, liabilities and income, for the two years the law was on the books.
The Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority is challenging that decision in a Tallahassee appellate court — the second case it has filed there over the issue. So far, it has spent $82,000 in toll collections on legal fees over three years.
If they lose their appeal, nine current and former members of the authority’s Board of Supervisors, who serve without compensation, each could face fines of up to $3,000. That’s $1,500 for each year for failing to file the full disclosure paperwork, known as Form 6.
“In dollars and cents you would say, ‘Why bother?’” acknowledged Terry Lewis, a lawyer handling the disclosure issue for the authority. “Believe me, they’ve been advised of that.”
But things are different on the three barrier islands that the bridge authority serves in Lee and Charlotte counties. That includes Gasparilla Island and its Boca Grande community, where the median home value is $1.8 million.
Bridge tolls to Boca Grande aren’t cheap. It’s $5 for a car or motorcycle, although island residents get a discounted rate of $3.25 or can buy annual passes for $650. The tolls are increasing to $6 and $3.90 on Oct. 1. Truck tolls are nearly two to four times higher depending on size.
Most of the 1,300 residents on the islands prefer to travel by golf carts, as there’s no gas station. Some golf carts are modified with quirky details, such as 1957 Chevy tail fins.
The Wall Street Journal this year named Gasparilla Island one of the 10 best places in the nation to have a second home. The late actress Katharine Hepburn used to rent a beach house there, and actor Harrison Ford is said to be a frequent visitor.
“The people that live there, from a financial standpoint, are very substantial,” Lewis said.
They are also very private. Board members declined comment and referred questions to Lewis, who said they would prefer “nosy neighbors” didn’t know how wealthy — or not — they may be.
Most are retired or semi-retired with business or professional backgrounds. Chairman David Hayes, for instance, is a semi-retired consultant who once managed manufacturing plants. Current and former members include a lawyer-businessman, insurance actuary consultant and a retired business turn-around consultant.
The limited financial disclosures, which board members have filed as they did before the 2009 law, list income sources that include Social Security, stocks and dividends, trust accounts, real estate, director fees and pensions.
The disclosures require officials to name their income sources, real estate holdings and creditors, as well as identify stocks, bonds and other intangible property. But it doesn’t require dollar amounts.
The board includes five elected members, who must be island residents, and four non-voting ex-officio members appointed by the governor to represent nonresident property owners.
Executive director Jim Cooper said no one would be willing to serve if full disclosure is required. He said he needs at least three voting members to make crucial decisions for the impending replacement of the authority’s three aging bridges.
“If everybody resigns from my board, that can’t happen,” Cooper said. “This is an unusual one-time situation.”
Lewis said the Gasparilla authority, which has an annual budget of only $4 million, got swept up in an effort to increase the accountability of much larger expressway and bridge authorities by requiring their board members to file full disclosure typically required only for elected state and county officials. Most of the authorities were created by general law rather than through a local bill of the kind that established the Gasparilla authority.
The 2009 full-disclosure requirement applied to any transportation-related authority created by general law “or any other legislative enactment,” which includes local bills.
“The first thing they tried to do was change the name, but that didn’t work,” said state Rep. Ken Roberson, R-Port Charlotte.
The authority then argued to the Ethics Commission that its board members weren’t covered because it wasn’t really a bridge authority but a special district despite its name. The commission rejected that claim and the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld its decision.
The board also turned to the Legislature. Roberson sponsored a local bill that passed this year to exempt the Gasparilla authority from the Form 6 requirement. A general transportation bill that passed this year also includes an exemption.
Neither has a retroactivity clause, though.
“We believe in our heart of hearts they meant it to be retroactive,” Cooper said.
That belief wasn’t good enough for the Ethics Commission. It ordered board members to file full disclosure for 2010 and 2011.
“We can’t change the law,” said Ethics Commissioner Edwin Scales III, a Key West lawyer. “That ship has sailed — no pun intended.”
In its second appeal to the district court, the authority contends the exemption in the 2012 general law should be retroactive because it nullified the commission’s “erroneous opinion” that the full disclosure requirement applied to Gasparilla Island.
Lewis acknowledged lawmakers were asked to include a retroactivity clause but refused, so the appellate court “was the only avenue we had.”
The court has not yet ruled, but in August it blocked the ethics panel from enforcing the full disclosure filing requirement until it does make a decision.
“It sounds like we’re playing legal pingpong,” said Ethics Commissioner Matthew Carlucci, a Jacksonville real estate agent.