MARTIN COUNTY HOMETOWN NEWS
Martin County Commissioners took the financial cuffs off April 14 in the fight against Florida Cast Coast Industries' plans to send 26 high speed trains a day through downtown Stuart.
The commission voted unanimously April 14 to transfer S250,000 from the general reserves to cover costs for the burgeoning legal challenge against All Aboard Florida. The board had previously approved a $60,000 amendment to the property appraiser's budget Jan. 6 to study and analyze the potential impacts of rite proposed passenger service to the Martin County tax revenues. Commissioners subsequently authorized the expenditure of up to $1.4 million in the fight on Feb.17, and County Attorney Michael Durham says much has been accomplished since the first $80,000 was designated on March 3 to the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery and its Washington D.C. based attorney Stephen Ryan.
"That $80,000 essentially was a stop gap, and what we got for that was an enormous amount of representation in the last two months," Mr. Durhan said. "In addition, we also got two lawsuits drafted they are 70 to 80 pages and a couple different claims within them, so we got good value with that $80,000.'
The commission has since authorized $60,000 for several items, including the inspection of the St. Lucie River bridge, transportation impacts within the community, lease agreements, and research of die railroad corridor, among other areas.
"We have been using that money and those resources meeting weekly, and we hope to have a lot of that work done by April 27" Mr. Durham added. The county's plans to study tire structural integrity of the railroad trestle has already caught the attention of die top brass at FECI, who has since contacted Mr. Durham.
"We did receive correspondence from the senior vice president and general counsel of Florida East Coast Industries objecting to our inspecting of the bridge," the county attorney said. "He basically wanted to know why we were doing that when there art-records available for safety inspection reports." Mr. Durham has responded to explain that the organization has yet to provide those same documents the county has previously requested by both formal letter and email correspondence.
"If he provides those, then we wouldn't need to spend the funds on the bridge inspection." he said. Martin County issued a formal request for qualification for legal firms interested in representing the county in its battle with FECI, which encompasses several entities under its corporate umbrella, including All Aboard Florida, Flagler Global Logistics, Parallel Infrastructure and Flagler, McDermott Will & Emery was the only potential law firm responding that had not previously worked with any of the aforementioned entities and so avoided a potential conflict of interest.
District 3 Commissioner Anne Scott says she supports the county's increasing financial commitment to fight All Aboard America and believes FF.CI "has purposely conflicted out" many law firms to limit the ability of Stuart and other Florida communities to defend themselves.
"When the government is behaving in an abusive way to another government and to its own citizens and constituents, litigation unfortunately, or fortunately... is the only path on which we can seek protection and redress," she said. "The abuse that is being foisted upon us is so outrageous and the government complicity and Washington's complicity... is just really disturbing."
District 1 Commissioner Doug Smith said it was important that the commissioners meet either individually or corporately with die McDermott Will & Emery attorney to ensure he is on the same page with the commission's goals.
"For a million and half dollars, I think it's imperative to meet with him and I would very much value that time for that level of expense." he said. "I hope he will make himself available." District 4 Commissioner Sarah Heard said the commissioners should meet with Mr. Ryan as a group in order to save the county money. "They're expensive," she said. "They're $765 an hour, so I would suggest that if and when we meet with them, that we meet with them in executive session."
The legal battle could soon become much more expensive, according to Mr. Durham. The attorney pointed to the example of Indian River County, the first Treasure Coast community to sue the U.S. Department of Transportation and its Under Secretary Peter M. Rogoff. That county, which has set aside $2.7 million for litigation related to All Aboard Florida, accuses the DOT and Mr. Rogoff of ignoring the National Environmental Policy Act by agreeing to allocate S1.75 billion of private activity bonds to All Aboard Florida before the environmental impact process was completed. Even if the lawsuit fails, some experts agree it would probably cause the federal government to slow down in its rush to approve the passenger train service connecting Miami to Orlando.
"The one challenge, which we have one of those counts here, is probably about half a million dollars to sec it through," Mr. Durham said "That's what was budgeted up there. I wouldn't expect that much for MC because we are sharing some of the costs."