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CEPD approves draft budget, investigation

By Staff | Jul 21, 2020

The Captiva Erosion Prevention District’s commission approved a draft budget for 2020-21 and moved to open an investigation into allegations raised by staff as part of a Whistle-blower’s Act complaint.

At the July 13 meeting, Administrator Joe Wagenti presented two options for next year’s budget – retain the current operating millage rate of 0.4291 and again collect about $600,000 in ad valorem taxes or increase that existing millage rate by 25 percent and collect about $750,000 in ad valorem taxes.

Under the first option, the CEPD would operate within a $643,450 general budget. It would entail $643,450 in income, made up of taxes, interest, a TDC grant and other. Expenses would total $371,100 and include admin expenses, wages, consulting and professional fees, and cost to collect the taxes.

In addition, a $272,350 transfer of operating reserves would balance it out.

Under the second one, the CEPD would operate within a $793,450 general budget. It would entail $793,450 in income, made up of taxes, interest, a TDC grant and other. Expenses would total $373,100 and include admin expenses, wages, consulting and professional fees, and cost to collect the taxes.

In addition, a $420,350 transfer of operating reserves would balance it out.

The tentative millage rate can be lowered, but not raised, during the budget hearings.

“We cannot go down,” Chairman Mike Mullins reminded the rest of the commission.

The commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the draft budget with the 25 percent millage rate increase. Mullins voted no, explaining that he is uncomfortable weighing in due to the whistleblower complaint.

“Because of the allegations,” he said.

On July 10, Wagenti provided a written disclosure to the full commission, citing Florida’s Whistle-blower’s Act. He reports that the CEPD is a special district with an annual operating budget, funded by ad valorem taxes, and will soon be overseeing a beach replenishment project valued at $30 million.

“It cannot effectively discharge its public responsibilities and utilize public funds wisely as it is presently governed. As will be shown below, I am disclosing gross mismanagement, malfeasance, misfeasance and gross waste of public funds,” Wagenti wrote. “The immediate and specific issue revolves around Bob Gray/Partners In Progress. That is, however, only the immediate problem.”

Within the complaint, he alleges that the CEPD – under the direction of Mullins – has spent over $801,000 on invoices rendered to it by Gray and his consulting firm, Partners In Progress, since 2007. According to Wagenti, no competitive proposal to select a vendor to render such services was done.

“The larger issue is the chairman’s management of the agency and a pattern of replacing leaders when they provided their own professional point of view,” he wrote, also alleging multiple “threats” of firing from Mullins. “I can cite many examples of what I saw of him creating his inner circle for the CEPD.”

Wagenti alleges that Mullins sought to fire Assistant Administrator Kimmy Foulds a couple of weeks after she was hired, adding that Mullins would become “unhinged” at how Foulds “treated” him.

“And would blame her for things he clearly knew I directed her to do,” he wrote. “Kimmy Foulds has (been) and is an exemplary employee, carrying out her duties exactly according to my direction.”

Wagenti also details a COVID-19 exposure incident involving staff several weeks ago.

“I notified the board that Kimmy and I will go back to working remotely while we get tested,” he wrote, alleging that it caused Mullins and Gray to go into “overdrive.” “Gray sent a text to immediately fly in from New York a replacement for Kimmy, none other than a young college friend.”

Wagenti added that the person’s fee was $400 per day – $100,000 annually – to be an assistant.

According to a resume included with the disclosure, the person is currently an assistant manager at an outdoor store, has been an election campaign volunteer and was employed as a construction worker.

Continuing in the complaint, Wagenti alleges that Mullins moved to bolster a false narrative that he was not performing his job and claimed he would ask the board to give him the full power to hire and fire.

“I need to make another statement so I’m clear with the board,” he concluded. “This is not about me retaining a job or even defending my performance. This is about wasting money and having this agency, at a time of significant challenge, controlled by handpicked subordinates who may or may not have the credentials to run the agency and complete the beach erosion project.”

As part of the disclosure, Wagenti offered his recommendation and next steps.

He suggested that Mullins resign immediately, and if he did not, he would ask the commission to suspend him and make the vice chair the new chair. If they failed to act, Wagenti would recommend to the county that it dismantle the CEPD and move the CEPD administration under its management.

At last week’s meeting, Mullins addressed the complaint and denied the allegations.

“It has some potentially damaging allegations,” he told the commission. “It’s something that needs to be immediately investigated and looked over, by someone on the board who is not the chairman.”

Mullins suggested that one commissioner serve as a liaison to the investigation.

“I abstain,” Treasurer Dick Pyle said. “I don’t want to get involved.”

Secretary Harry Kaiser said that he would, however, he does not have the time.

“Everything we have done has been out in the open. I don’t like these accusations,” he added. “I’m really in favor of getting an outside person to come in. We have a black eye and I don’t like it.”

Vice Chair Bob Walter disagreed with a liaison, explaining that all of the commissioners should step back. He recommended that the CEPD’s attorney find an independent arbitrator or investigator.

“I think an independent investigation is completely warranted,” Walter said.

Attorney Ralf Brookes reported that he would put together a list of three possible investigators.

The commissioners agreed on opening an investigation into the allegations.

No action was taken on removing or suspending Mullins.

“We’re not taking any action on that,” Brookes explained for the commission. “That will be part of the investigation by the private investigator.”

As part of the complaint, Wagenti also reported that staff would interact with Mullins through email and recorded meetings only from now on and that he is banned from the administrative office.

The commission voted 5-0 to deny his request to ban Mullins from the office.

IN OTHER NEWS

– Mullins reported that Commissioner Michael Lanigan resigned in late June. Wagenti reported that staff only heard from one person, CEPD Emeritus Board Member Rene Miville, on the vacancy.

The commission voted 4-0 to appoint Miville to Lanigan’s seat to finish out his term.

– Wagenti reported that staff will have an attendant on duty at the Alison Hagerup Beach parking lot from now on for holiday weekends. The commission voiced support for the move, even suggesting that there be one every weekend while school is out. There will now be a weekend attendant until Aug. 2.

– Wagenti told the commissioners that staff are working on warning tags to place on abandoned equipment left on the beach. Staff will tag the items, wait a few days, then remove the items.

“We have a lot of people that are leaving furniture and chairs on the beach,” he said.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Kaiser said. “People put up these tents and they leave them up.”

– Wagenti reported that he met with the Lee County Tourist Development Council and learned it is facing a 40 percent budget cut due to COVID-19. The CEPD has requested about $600,000 in funding. He continued that in light of the situation, he decreased the CEPD’s original ask to about $400,000.

“I apologize if I overstepped,” Wagenti said after some commissioners questioned if he could do that after they had approved the total. “But at the moment they were asking each of us to look at cuts.”