Collier County Commissioner Bill McDaniel has apparently been conducting a lot of county business on his personal email account – and now taxpayers will be footing the bill to defend him in a lawsuit filed by a local golf course over it.
The commission voted Tuesday for the county to provide legal representation for McDaniel in a lawsuit filed by Naples Golf, which owns the Links of Naples golf course on Tamiami Trail in east Collier, alleging the commissioner failed to turn over some 350,000 private emails that he has generated while conducting public business during his seven years in office.
The county recently agreed to turn over the public emails to Naples Golf Development LLC, which is in a development dispute with McDaniel, but only if the company first pays the county $57,244.77 for a review of the emails for possible redactions.
Naples Golf attorney Ethan Loeb called the exorbitant fee “offensive” and said it falls outside the bounds of Florida’s public records laws.
“It’s an impediment to obtaining public records,” said Loeb. “I think it’s over the top.”
McDaniel, however, made a stunning admission in an interview with the Florida Trident after Tuesday’s vote that appears to make the county’s steep monetary demand even more egregious.
“There’s nothing to redact in the emails,” said McDaniel. “They’re already in the public server and there’s no redactions to be made.”
Loeb asked the obvious question: If there is nothing to redact in the records why is the county trying to force his client to pay $57,244.77 for alleged redactions?
“It makes no sense,” he said.
Making the demand even more curious is that Collier County Attorney Jeffrey Klatzkow initially offered in an October 26 email to hand over the McDaniel emails with no listed fees if Loeb agreed to end the lawsuit.
It was only after Loeb told the county he wasn’t ending the lawsuit that officials sent Loeb the five-figure demand for the records. A call for comment from Klatzkow left with the county was not returned prior to publication.
It’s sad to see it go down this way,” said Loeb. “You expect your government to be a little more transparent and not play what I would refer to as games.”
Golf Course Development Fight
The conflict began after Naples Golf, which owns the Links of Naples course, arrived at a settlement with the county to allow the company to sidestep what it called an onerous golf course conversion ordinance and receive approval to build low-density housing (three homes per acre) that was otherwise allowed under current zoning rules.
But when the settlement was put on the county consent agenda for a vote on March 28, McDaniel pulled the item and scuttled the agreement.
“Our county attorney negotiated a development agreement without going through the public process,” McDaniel told the Trident. “Then all the sudden it shows up on my county commission agenda and I pulled the item and voted to turn down the settlement because it hadn’t gone through the public realm. It should go through the public process like everything else.”
When Naples Golf representatives reached out to McDaniel for an explanation, the commissioner told them that the county itself might want to purchase the property and develop it for affordable housing. The company filed suit against the county on April 28 alleging its property rights had been violated under the state’s Bert Harris Act.
“The county is not a developer of land and is not in the business of improving private property for single family residential purposes,” Loeb wrote in that lawsuit. “The only basis for refusing to accept a settlement that all qualified parties believed to be in the best interests of the public is to artificially depress the value of the property so that the county can seek to acquire it for less money.”
McDaniel denied that he was trying to depress the value of the land, but confirmed he has considered the county purchasing the land using a $20 million fund that is set aside for affordable housing.
Ironically, McDaniel holds himself out as one who values individual property rights and despises government intrusion on them.
“I hold private property rights as sacred,” McDaniel said. “But everyone has to go through the public process.”
“The Way I Do Things”
While initially communicating with Naples Golf, McDaniels used his personal email, which prompted Loeb on September 8 to make a public records request for all county records residing on his personal email accounts and personal devices.
Loeb has extensive experience in such cases involving public officials. Last year, a records lawsuit he filed against Tampa Commissioner John Dingfelder ended with Dingfelder’s resignation when it was discovered he was using his wife’s email account to surreptitiously conduct public business.
When no records were initially produced, Loeb filed suit against McDaniel on October 12. McDaniel said one reason for the lack of a response was that he was consumed by a family tragedy – his brother committed suicide on September 9.
As for the use of his private email server to conduct county business, McDaniel said it’s been a longstanding habit, but insisted that the personal emails were all sent to the county email server contemporaneously and never used to hide what he was doing.
“It was never the intent to keep it out of the public realm,” he said. “It was just the way I did things.”
He conceded there was a chance that some emails never made it to the county server.
“I don’t do that as a business practice,” he said. “Am I infallible? No.”
Loeb was more than skeptical and said he had heard similar stories from politicians before regarding their use of private email servers for public business.
“I call BS on that,” he said. “Sometimes I think they get this out of the playbook of public officials.”
About the Author: Bob Norman is an award-winning investigative reporter who serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Trident and journalism program director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability. He can be reached at email@example.com.