The Daytona Beach News Journal reported today on the ethics charge against water board chair, John Miklos of the St. Johns district. Although the Florida Commission on Ethics cleared Miklos, many believe a cloud still hovers over him, his board, and the St. Johns River Water Management District. Ethics may be tainted even though laws may not be broken. The problem is that some say his personal business appears to profit from his position.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Water board chairman Miklos cleared of ethics complaint
Posted Dec 14, 2016 at 7:14 PM Updated Dec 14, 2016 at 8:57 PM
By Dinah Voyles, Pulver [email protected]
A state investigator found probable cause that John Miklos, board chairman of the St. Johns River Water Management District, violated state ethics laws while his consulting firm was working for the city of DeBary but the state ethics commission has rejected that finding.
The Florida Commission on Ethics voted 7 to 2 Friday, during a closed-door meeting in Tallahassee, on a motion to find no probable cause that Miklos, owner and president of Bio-Tech Consulting, violated the law. The results of that vote and the investigation were released Wednesday afternoon.
Commission Chairman Matthew Carlucci and member Michael Cox voted against the motion.
“If you are routinely making a living doing certain projects that eventually will go to certain boards for approval, then you might not want to take a position on that board,” Cox said. Instead, Miklos “took a position on the board knowing full well” the type of work he does could lead to potential conflicts.
However, commission member Tom Freeman, a retired judge who lives in DeBary, did not agree. Freeman made the motion to find no probable cause, based in part on the fact that the land deal fell apart before it reached the water management district for a vote.
“The matter at this point is pure conjecture,” Freeman said. “The issue was never submitted to the St. Johns River Water Management District for approval. He never took a position and voted on it.”
Miklos did not respond to an email seeking comment for the story. But, in a statement to the commission on Friday, he said he “never envisioned that this project would become an issue as it is.”
“If a conflict ever arises or even the perception of a conflict arises at the board, I recuse myself and don’t vote,” he said. Miklos also said he had vetted the issue with the water district’s general counsel and was assured there was no conflict of interest.
Donald Mair, the Deltona resident who brought the complaint against Miklos last spring, was crushed and frustrated by the decision.
To Mair, it shouldn’t matter that Miklos recuses himself from votes on issues where he’s representing clients. “Because he’s the chairman of the agency,” Mair said, “he obviously influences the district.”
Miklos was being paid $155 an hour by the city of DeBary through a contractor to look at the permits required for the city to acquire 102 acres of conservation land owned by the water district to use as part of its transit-oriented development district. Miklos and the city hoped to win approval from the district and the other agencies to use the land to store and treat stormwater from the surrounding development. The city also wanted to develop a portion of the land.
City officials said they were assured by Bio-Tech that the proposal could be approved. However, DeBary residents and users of the multi-user trail that runs alongside the property learned of the city’s plans and mounted a grassroots campaign against the proposal. Volusia County also opposed the plan, and ultimately the district agreed to continue forward on a plan to give the land to the county.
A News-Journal investigation found that Miklos had declared a conflict of interest on more than a dozen agenda items in the three years since he was appointed board chairman in November 2013. However, most permits are seen only by staff and not the board. His company has been a party to at least 85 permit applications to the St. Johns district since he was named chairman.
Elizabeth Miller, the advocate from the state attorney general’s office who prosecutes cases for the ethics commission, laid out the case for two counts of probable cause for ethics violations for the commission on Friday. Miller said a conflict was presented because the goals of Bio-Tech were to secure the permits and get the approvals for the city to move forward with acquiring the 102 acres. And, she said, it also was unlawful compensation because Miklos accepted payment.
“He should have exercised reasonable care to know that this was given to potentially influence any action that he had as a public official,” Miller said.
Commission member Daniel Brady asked Miller for clarification: The theory of the case is that Bio-Tech was hired because Miklos was on the board at the district and his presence as chairman “would grease the skids for them getting what they wanted?”
“Basically, yes,” Miller replied.
But Miklos attorney, Bucky Mitchell, refuted that.
“The city clearly did not provide compensation under the contract with the hope that it would influence Mr. Miklos’ official action as a member of the district,” he said. Instead, he said, Bio-Tech was hired because of Miklos’ long-term business relationships with Matt Boerger, the city’s growth management director, and David Hamstra, the city’s engineering consultant.
Ultimately, a majority of the commission agreed with Freeman.
“There’s no way in the world that you have enough facts or a firm foundation to find that he violated the ethics of Florida and we should in manner of justice find that there’s no probable cause for going forward and prosecuting under the ethics laws of Florida,” Freeman said.
Freeman opened his remarks by stating he had paid $1.8 million in wetland mitigation fees over the last 10 years and is comfortable with the way the process works. Freeman said it’s important for district board members to be knowledgeable about the wetlands industry.
Mair said he couldn’t understand how the commission could “come to the conclusion that there was no probable cause.”
“This was a slam dunk case,” he said. “His business at Bio-Tech has doubled since he became chairman because everyone is going to him to help get permits through the agency he controls.”
“There’s nothing that can be done. There’s no recourse,” he said. “You can’t even appeal this.”
Mair and other opponents to the plan were dismayed when Miklos was re-elected to a fourth term as board chairman by the water district board in November. Mair said he would consider filing a second ethics complaint, worded differently.
A second related issue is still under investigation. The State Attorney’s Office is investigating whether the city manager and city council members violated the state’s Sunshine Law while discussing the issue. A state attorney’s spokesman did not return calls or emails seeking an update.