Wary of violating a Florida statute about consorting with former colleagues, Santa Rosa officials are carefully avoiding work-related contact with Rob Williamson, the new CEO of Holley Navarre Water System.
Keeping Williamson at arm’s length has already required dodging an overture last week to tour Holley Navarre Water’s facilities on Turkey Bluff Road along with the voter-ousted commissioner.
Both County Administrator Dan Schebler and Dave Piech, who soundly defeated Williamson’s bid for a second term as the District 4 commissioner, were invited to the HNWS facilities.
Schebler said in an email response to a reporter’s query: “The initial agenda we received included Rob Williamson as an attendee. We communicated our intention to cancel attendance if Rob was present or participated.”
Schebler added that Williamson’s “involvement was removed and Commissioner Piech and I met with HNWS” for the tour on Dec. 11.
All this underscores potential legal peril arising from Williamson’s role in the $100,000-a-year HNWS CEO job. The utility and the county are currently in discussions about the future of a rapid infiltration basin system at Eglin Air Force Base, the proposed rerouting of HNWS effluent for reuse in Gulf Breeze, the possible expansion of sewer-septic conversion projects currently up for RESTORE funding, and the possible acquisition by HNWS of county-owned Navarre Beach Utilities.
“I guess we’ll have to hire another person to handle all that,” said Daryl Lynchard, an HNWS board member and the panel’s former president. He was the lone vote against hiring Williamson because of the potential legal restrictions and the former commissioner’s lack of experience in utility-related matters.
The awkward tour incident also illustrates that Williamson is either unfamiliar with Florida law restricting his activities on behalf of HNWS or decided in this instance to disregard the statute.
Williamson didn’t respond to a request for comment on this issue.
Lynchard said if Williamson reaches out to county officials on HNWS matters, “It could get not just him in trouble, but the other guys too.”
But Schebler put his separation from Williamson in writing as shown by a recent exchange of emails with HNWS obtained in a public records request.
The back-and-forth began on Dec. 7 with an email to Schebler from Jason Montgomery, a clerk at HNWS: “Please find the attached itinerary for next Tuesday’s visit to Holley-Navarre Water System, Inc., facilitated by Rob Williamson.”
Montgomery dutifully copied in Williamson on the contact with Schebler.
But Schebler soon responded via email directly to Williamson: “Rob, The County Attorney has advised that attendance tomorrow by Commissioner Piech and me with your scheduled participation would present a conflict … (of) allowable activities, representation and the applicability of the Florida Statute.”
On Dec. 10 Williamson wrote back to Schebler: “Ok, I will not attend. The HNWS team is doing all the talking anyway. With me sitting this one out, will you and Dave still attend?”
Schebler, reassured that the visit by him and Piech wouldn’t include contact with Williamson, wrote back to the HNWS chief executive: “Rob, I will confirm with Dave this morning, I expect with that change we will be there.”
So, after conferring with County Attorney Roy Andrews, Schebler and Piech did visit the Holley Navarre Water facilities. That generated a lengthy press release from Williamson about the tour and how Schebler and Piech met with HNWS Board President Will Goulet, soon-to-retire General Manager Paul Gardner and others.
With language in the press release that seemed to imply he was involved with the county officials’ visit, Williamson wrote, “The tour is an effort to improve communication and outreach with HNWS members and county partners.”
In response to this newspaper’s questions about the tour episode, Piech said, “The County must be vigilant about contact with the new HNWS CEO. While the violation of the statute would be on the new CEO, I do not want to see any of our SRC employees involved with a violation in any way of a state statute and have asked that we clarify the statute and inform all our employees in order to ensure compliance with the law.”
Under Florida Statute 112.313 subsection (14), any person who has been elected to a county position “may not personally represent another person or entity for compensation before the government body or agency of which the person was an officer for a period of 2 years after vacating that office.”
Piech added that he, too, backed away from the initial HNWS tour invitation that included Williamson: “I agreed to a tour of HNWS when asked. Upon seeing the first agenda for the tour I noted the former commissioner’s participation and informed both Mr. Schebler and Mr. Andrews that I would not participate in the tour and declined the initial invitation.”
Any complaint about possible violations of the statute would be handled by the Florida Ethics Commission as a civil—not criminal—matter. Findings that the statute has been violated can bring fines of up to $10,000 for former commissioners and for county officials who communicate with them on official business.
Williamson was named to the newly created position of chief executive officer at a salary of $100,000 annually in a closed-door vote by the utility’s volunteer board last month, soon after he left the County Commission.
The path to Williamson’s job at HNWS with a roughly 40 percent raise from his commission post was greased, even before the CEO job was created. No one else was interviewed for the position, which wasn’t advertised, before his selection in a 5-1 voted backed by Goulet, a friend and political supporter of Williamson.
Goulet told a reporter: “The board had a scheduled personnel meeting with the whole board in attendance. It was a 5 to 1 vote. I feel the board made the right decision.”
Williamson woos Schebler
Although Schebler sidestepped Williamson on his tour of HNWS, he had already endorsed the former commissioner for the utility job.
The Navarre Press obtained a copy of a glowing reference letter that Schebler wrote for Williamson to Goulet on Oct. 30.
Schebler told a reporter that he wrote the letter before becoming familiar with the statute banning contact with former commissioners and without consulting Andrews, the county attorney: “Rob asked if I would write a letter of recommendation for him for a position he was pursuing with HNWS.”
In fact, at the time, the new HNWS position hadn’t even been created. Even now, no job description has been made public or even supplied to utility board members such as Lynchard.
What’s more, Schebler’s letter endorsed the man who was then one of his bosses and who had supported Schebler’s hiring by the county in 2017.
Schebler’s letter expressed confidence that Williamson would be an excellent hire for HNWS and—in particular—work well with the county: “If Rob is selected I would look forward to continuing to work with him on those common pressing issues that we must address together.”
To be sure, such collaboration seems to be exactly what the state statute restricting the activities of former government officials specifies to be illegal, Lynchard said.
Yet Schebler wrote to this newspaper last week, “I would still write a recommendation letter for Rob.”
While Schebler asserted, “I always intend to avoid violations of state statute,” he noted that the letter was written while Williamson was a current—not former—county official.
Schebler wrote the Williamson reference letter 19 days before the commissioner left office.
Piech responded to a reporter’s questions about Schebler’s letter: “Our county administrator made his own decision on writing a letter of recommendation and it is not my position to second-guess that decision.”
But Piech doesn’t want Schebler’s letter to set a precedent of county officials working with Williamson on HNWS matters: “Mr. Schebler worked closely with the former commissioner and the letter portrays his personal feelings. My concern is that the members of HNWS now have a CEO that will not be able to deal with the local government on some key issues facing the residents of Santa Rosa County.”
While Schebler’s letter might be misinterpreted as endorsing county contact with Williamson, Piech said, “I do not believe the letter violates the state statute.”
Backing from Broxson
Another powerful friend of Williamson’s wrote a letter of recommendation for him in October–State Sen. Doug Broxson: “To whom it may concern: Rob Williamson’s years of service representing Santa Rosa County have allowed him to develop a great understanding of the issues affecting the region.”
Broxson pointed out in particular what he said are Williamson’s skills to work with “other government officials to help secure funding and support for local projects.”
However, the Florida statute regulating former county commissioners appears to prohibit such activity in the sort of job Williamson was soon to obtain at Holley Navarre Water.
In response to a reporter’s query about his letter, Broxson wrote in an email: “After the election, Rob Williamson asked for a letter of reference so he could pursue new opportunities for himself and his family. I wrote what I believe to be an accurate view of our experience in working with him during his tenure in office. … When requested, we proudly honor people and organizations who help contribute to the success of our region.”
Williamson could be a temp
Despite Williamson’s connections, his tenure at Holley Navarre Water could be short-lived.
Noting that four seats on the volunteer board are up for grabs in an election next month, Lynchard indicated to a reporter that Williamson’s hiring could be revisited.
If the new board members bring the issue to a vote on keeping Williamson in the job, Lynchard said he’d be inclined to favor seeking someone with less baggage and more experience: “I won’t say for sure, but my views haven’t changed since I opposed his being hired in the first place.”
Further, the board election scheduled for Jan. 15 could bring four new members to the panel of seven, none of whom were involved in Williamson’s hiring.
At least one of those prospective new directors is Yvonne Harper, a Holley by the Sea resident who has been critical of Williamson and ran against him four years ago when he first won the District 4 seat.
Harper said in an interview that while she wouldn’t necessarily want to vote out Williamson, “First I would need to see a job description and a contract. Then sit down with him and ask about his qualifications and how he plans to accomplish what’s needed to do the job well.”
Williamson’s education background is a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Florida State. He owns a landscaping business and has a personal bankruptcy in his financial past. Williamson succeeds Gardner but with a different title.
Gardner, who is scheduled to retire Dec. 31, has an engineering background and 30 years of experience at HNWS.
“What’s important is how the utility serves the public and the quality of its product—which is water,” said Harper. She added, “This isn’t about personalities or my personal opinion about Rob. It’s about whether he can run a water utility that is facing complex issues.”
About 20 percent of Williamson’s compensation is paid by Fairpoint Regional Utility System, a collective that sells water to HNWS and other members.
John Grant, volunteer president of Fairpoint and president of Midway Water, another collective customer, said he voted for the appointment of Williamson as executive director of the umbrella organization with “reservations.”
Grant explained that Williamson’s path to the Fairpoint Regional board started with being named as Holley Navarre Water’s CEO. But Grant pointed out, “The people did not re-elect him” as county commissioner. Nor was there a “competitive selection” for Williamson as HNWS boss.
Further, Grant said, “I have not seen a resume.”
He added, “That said, the selection was made by the HNWS board. If customers do not like the selection, or the non-competitive process, they can elect a different board.”
As seen in the Dec. 20 issue of Navarre Press.
Visit www.navarrepress.com/subscribe to view subscription options – or
sign up to receive a digital subscription to Navarre Press for 30 days free.
Go to http://navarrepress.fl.newsmemory.com/ then click on the drop down bar and select base rates.