Gigi the loggerhead sea turtle and District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson have never seen each other.
That’s because she’s blind and Williamson has never visited the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center, where Gigi lives under the care of volunteers he occasionally feuds with over finances.
The latest round erupted at Monday’s board meeting when Williamson sparred with the center’s board president, Yvonne Harper. He objected to a request by Harper–who ran unsuccessfully against Williamson for the District 4 seat in 2013 – to extend the turtle facility’s lease for 10 years to 2026.
“I would like to see ‘termination at will language” inserted in a new lease, Williamson said. He also suggested that the lease be limited to five years.
Harper replied that some grants for which the center plans to apply require a lease longer than five years. District 2 Commissioner Bob Cole agreed with Harper about the lease-term requirements for certain grants and asked for more information about those.
Williamson’s hostility underscores the ill will in his relationships with some other volunteer groups. For example, all 10 members of the Navarre Beach Beautification Committee resigned earlier this year after Williamson scuffled with them over documenting expenditures and labeled the group “ragtag.” He has also tussled with the volunteer Tourist Development Council over funding for certain events, resulting in the abrupt resignation of Laurie Gallup, a tourist lodging company owner.
Rough seas for turtle center
Williamson led the county to stop funding the turtle center during the middle of constructing its pool in 2015. He voiced concerns that he had been denied access to documentation of the center’s spending and that a request by the center exceeded its allotment by about $1,000. Members of the center denied the claim, and county staff explained the remaining money was meant to come out of a secondary pot the county had awarded the center.
Williamson disagreed and moved to suspend all county funds to the facility, and succeeded until July.
The discrepancy was later traced back to a mistake by county administrators, but the damage was done. Although part of the center’s funds were reinstated, two projects’ budgets were permanently suspended.
Face time with Gigi
Harper tried to spark Williamson’s support by inviting him to visit the turtle center, which opened in September. Volunteers say he didn’t attend the ribbon cutting and they don’t recall him ever stopping by, even though the facility’s Navarre Beach Marine Park location is in his district.
“We’d love to have you out there,” Harper said.
”I’d love to come take a look at it,” replied Williamson.
But he immediately returned to questioning Harper about the center’s finances and long-term plans. Williamson explained that although he supports the turtle center’s mission, he objects to its location, which was established before he took office in 2014. He said the structure is positioned near the park’s “very constrained entrance and exit point.”
Further, Williamson raised the possibility that commissioners may eventually determine that the center location’s “highest and best use could be something else…”
The facility is housed in a county-owned wooden beachfront shack that had been vacant for years. It had been a park information center but closed in 2008. Volunteers refurbished the building with the help of county funds. The facility now includes a pool in which the 200-pound Gigi, a rescue animal, is the only turtle, as well as educational exhibits.
Operating as a nonprofit, the center has so far spent about $165,000 in county funds, Harper said. She added that the facility has had 2,619 visitors since opening last month. Although there’s a $5 admission fee, that’s often waived for students and various groups.
But Harper said that she expects grants and donations to keep the center financially independent in the future.
Show me the money
Williamson repeatedly insisted on being supplied with the center’s financial documents and specific long-term plans – including those for any expansions. Harper agreed, although she expressed concern at Williamson’s intent: “I don’t know what you’re looking for. Is it something to support not supporting it, or something to support supporting it?”
Commission Chairman Lane Lynchard played peacemaker, entering the testy exchange. “I’m leaning more in support of the 10-year lease,” as opposed to Williamson’s five-year suggestion. “I think the long-term agreement will really benefit you and the county.”
Lynchard also sought to soften the new lease’s language, disagreeing with Williamson’s request that the document specify the county’s right for “termination at will.” Instead, he proposed a clause that underscores the county’s authority if the center isn’t “meeting standards,” or similar language.
Later, in an email response to a reporter’s query about the matter, Lynchard wrote, “I don’t believe the Center should have any reservations about furnishing their full financials to the county. The county has invested significant sums of money into the success of the Center, and it is reasonable to expect an accounting of those funds. I think the Center has tremendous potential, and the best way to ensure long-term success and continued support by the BOCC is a good working relationship involving the free flow of information.”
Harper told the Navarre Press: “We will supply all the financial results from when we were formed as a nonprofit. We want to provide complete transparency.”
As seen in the Oct. 13 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.