Cole: “We live in a county of cowards.”

Navarre Area United Political Action Committee (PAC) has offered anonymity for donors contributing to the $41,000 price tag of a Navarre incorporation feasibility study.

But the legal footing of that promise may be in question.

PAC leader Jonathan Cole told potential donors they would not have to disclose their name, address and occupation as is required for all Florida political committee donations during a presentation to the Greater Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce last Friday.

The PAC aims to get a referendum on the August 2020 primary ballot to support making Navarre its own city. Modified to no longer include Holley, the proposed city limit would encompass the area south of East Bay, the area just east of Edgewood Drive and east to the county line. The expanse would also include Navarre Beach.

Cole said incorporation benefits Navarre because it would allow the people to rule themselves. He said the county has failed to meet the needs of Navarre for years.

“The bare minimum is done. The growth happens, but without the planning that goes with it,” he said of the county’s management of Navarre.

He also pointed out that 40% of sales taxes and 80% of bed taxes are generated in the Navarre area.

“Do you think you are getting a proportionate amount of the taxes back?” he asked.

To bring the power to govern to Navarre, the PAC will need to conduct a feasibility study at an estimated cost of $41,000. Paying for that and the promotion of a ballot initiative will require donations, some of which can be made without disclosing who made them Cole said.

But Florida law requires that all political committees reveal the name, address and occupation of all donors as part of financial record filings. In Santa Rosa County, such records are automatically posted for public viewing on the Supervisor of Elections office website, votesantarosa.com.

So, why does Cole think they are different?

Cole says the donations would be received through a separate entity, Navarre Area United’s 501(c)(4). Cole said the 501(c)(4) qualifies as a “social welfare organization” under the IRS tax codes.

Similar in some ways to a nonprofit 501(c)(3), these organizations do not fall under the same tax rules as corporations. Unlike a 501(c)(3), they can fund political lobbying and political campaign activities, but donations to these groups are not tax deductible.

Florida law requires that any organization that meets the definition of political committee must disclose the names, addresses and occupations of donors. But in July 2018, the IRS code was modified to no longer include a requirement for reporting of name and address for donors to 501(c)(4) organizations at the federal level.

Cole explained that donations made by the 501(c)(4) to the PAC will only appear under the 501(c)(4)’s name, meaning the donors are effectively anonymous.

“We live in a county of cowards, and they refuse to donate if their name will be on county public record,” Cole said.

To avoid Florida’s disclosure laws, the group must not be or operate as a political committee.

According to Florida statute 106.011 (16)(a), a political committee is defined as a “combination of two or more individuals, or a person other than an individual, that, in an aggregate amount in excess of $500 during a single calendar year” supports or opposes an issue or candidate in an election. There is an exception in the law for corporations that are not formed for a political purpose.

Cole said their 501(c)(4) is about more than the incorporation of Navarre, instead looking at community betterment. He said that includes working to attract jobs, assist with legislation and “hold the county’s feet to the fire” on infrastructure improvements in Holley by the Sea.

“As the whole, it is just whatever can make Navarre a better place,” he said. He couldn’t answer specifics on what those plans are.

Cole said the practice is legal and political consultants frequently use this structure for donations.

“There are reporting guidelines, and we are going to adhere to them. It is by no means something that is under the table,” Cole said.

He went on to say they decided to do things this way because of divisions within the community. He said one business owner faced boycotts from some customers who thought he supported the effort.

“That is just how we have to create it. There is so much animosity and angst in this town,” he said.

Cole said they will still encourage people to donate directly under the PAC as well.

Navarre Press contacted the Department of State general counsel for information on the legality of this practice, but inquiries were not answered by press time.

Supervisor of Elections Tappie Villane said she is not sure what the law would dictate.

“This is outside of the election code. We can only tell about what is inside the election code,” she said.

In emails with Villane’s office, Department of State Deputy General Counsel Ashley Davis said the group does qualify as a political committee as described, meaning it must disclose donors.

“As I understand it, the organization would be, in excess of $500 per calendar year, printing the signs and placing ads…expressly advocating for the passage or defeat of a local issue,” she wrote. “That activity would make the organization a ‘political committee’ under section 106.011(16)(a)1.c.”

Davis went on to say that the primary activity of a 501(c)(4) cannot be political activities such as passing a ballot measure. If that is the case, the 501(c)(4) setup described may be subject to disclosure of donors.

Based on a final count of voters registered by July 1, 2019, the PAC will need 2,771 signatures on their petition to get to the ballot. Those signatures must be split between the six voting precincts in the proposed city boundary to amount to at least 8% of registered voters in each precinct.

If the petition is completed, the Board of County Commissioners could put the issue on the 2020 ballot for Navarre voters. If the initiative receives at least 60% plus one of the votes, Representative Jayer Williamson said he would pursue legislation at the state level to make the city official.

 

 

 

As seen in the July 18 issue of Navarre Press.

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