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Betrayal of Public Trust

--Guest commentary--

October 2, 2013
By Ray Judah , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

On Sept. 18, 2013 at their final budget hearing, the Lee County Board of County

Commissioners betrayed the public trust.

The Board of Commissioners voted to raid the Conservation 2020 Trust Fund in the

2013-14 fiscal year to balance the budget. Instead of acting responsibly and further

reduce expenses or adjust the property tax millage rate, the Commissioners made the ill

advised and short sighted decision to undermine a uniquely successful program that

was designed to conserve our precious land and water resources, enhance property

values, and provide open space for public enjoyment and quality of life.

In 1996, the people of Lee County voted to support the Conservation 2020 ballot

initiative to purchase and manage environmentally sensitive lands. Recognizing that

Lee County was developing at a pace that would eventually eclipse the Florida east

coast with greater density and intensity of development, the Lee County community

rallied in support of the Conservation 2020 land acquisition program to establish a

designated funding source to protect our natural heritage.

Pursuant to the 1996 ballot language and Conservation 2020 enabling ordinance, 10

percent of the funds collected was to be set aside for land management and the

balance for land acquisition. The public, in support of the Conservation 2020 program,

had every right to believe that funds collected under the designated 0.5 millage rate

would be strictly used for purchase and management of environmentally sensitive lands.

In violating the public trust by redirecting Conservation 2020 funds to balance the

budget, the Commission has also created an inequity with the municipalities.

Conservation 2020 funds are collected county wide and provide an at large public

benefit to incorporated and unincorporated Lee County. The five municipalities within

the county are understandably questioning the use of monies collected within their own

political boundaries but being used to balance the county budget instead of their

intended purpose. The Commission's abdication of their responsibility to oversee the

Conservation 2020 program with integrity and honesty will lead to political and legal

challenges from the cities and a feeling of abandonment and betrayal by the public at


The Commissioners were of the opinion that Conservation 2020 had healthy reserves

and, therefore, felt justified in exploiting the Trust Fund. However, the reserves were

built up over the past several years due to inaction by the Commission to purchase

environmentally sensitive lands that had been prioritized and recommended for

purchase by the County Lands Department and the Conservation 2020 Land Acquisition

and Stewardship Advisory Committee. The Commission's decision to defer purchase of

environmentally sensitive lands under the Conservation 2020 program was predicated

on unsubstantiated accusations by the former Clerk of Courts that the county paid too

much for Conservation 2020 lands. The public record demonstrates that the Board of

County Commissioners never paid in excess of appraised value as determined by State

Certified Land Appraisers for Conservation 2020 lands.

The success of Conservation 2020 over the years is what has contributed to setting Lee

County apart from other counties and other regions of the world. Lee County is unique

and distinct because over 17 years ago our community realized the importance

of providing a balance between the natural and built environment. The investment under

Conservation 2020 has strengthened the foundation of our multibillion dollar tourism

and real estate industry that relies on a clean and healthy environment, protection of

critical drinking water supplies, and sufficient open space to sustain our quality of life.

The public trust should not be so callously disregarded and the Lee County

Commissioners should be held accountable for their action.

--Ray Judah is a former Lee County Commissioner.



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